Review finds Univ. of Minnesota complied with law, policy during Gophers football suspensions

- A report by a law firm hired by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents says the university complied with applicable law and policy during its investigation and subsequent handling of the sexual assault allegations against 10 Gopher football players last fall.

Ten Gophers players were suspended last fall for their alleged involvement in a September 2016 incident in which another student claimed she was pressured into having sex with multiple football players. No criminal charges were filed, but the U of M Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action conducted its own investigation into the allegations. Five of the players were eventually cleared and five were expelled or suspended.

The Board of Regents charged a special committee with overseeing the review of the administration’s handling of the Gopher football sexual assault case. Attorneys with the law firm Dorsey & Whitney were hired to review the sexual assault report and the resulting process, as well the football team’s threatened boycott.

Based on its review, the law firm found that the university complied with applicable law and policy with respect to the Student Conduct Code process.

“The university provides substantial due process protections in its EOAA investigations, including protections that far exceed the due process protections of other Big 10 universities,” the report read.
The law firm also concluded that the university’s suspension decisions – the initial decisions to suspend the 10 players, then to lift the suspensions and then later to impose new suspensions – were “consistent with university policy and law.”

Following the initial suspensions, the entire Gopher football team had threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl if the suspensions were not lifted. Head coach Tracy Claeys appeared to support the boycott and was later fired.

The report concluded that a lack of understanding of the Student Conduct Code disciplinary process and weak leadership by the football team coaching staff contributed to the threatened boycott. A “breakdown in trust” between university leaders and the football team due to the leaders’ inability to share private student information was also a factor, among other things.

The law firm said the boycott could have been better managed better by the Board of Regents, U of M administration and Athletics Department and the football team coaches.

FOUR ISSUES REVIEWED

The Board of Regents directed the special committee to oversee the review of four issues:

1. Practices and policies with respect to suspensions and other discipline within the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (Twin Cities Campus), including how these practices and policies interact or relate to Board of Regents Policy: Student Conduct Code (Conduct Code) process and the criminal justice process.

2. The standards of review and processes at each stage of the Conduct Code process as it relates to Title IX matters.

3. Practices and policies regarding permissible communication during the Conduct Code process, including specifically when that process involves student-athletes.

4. Lessons learned from the threatened boycott by the football team, including review of involvement by Regents, senior University leaders, coaches, and individuals from outside the University.

DISCIPLINE

The University, including the Athletics Department, complied with applicable law and policy with respect to the athletic discipline of the student-athletes in Fall 2016.
Dorsey & Whitney concluded that the suspension decisions of Fall 2016—the initial decisions to suspend, then to lift suspensions, and then later to impose new suspensions—were consistent with University policy and the law

DUE PROCESS

The University complied with applicable law and policy with respect to the Student Conduct Code process. The University provides substantial due process protections in its EOAA investigations, including protections that far exceed the due process protections of other Big 10 Universities.

COMMUNICATION

The University complied with state and federal privacy laws with respect to communications. The University would have been better served by more coordination between Regents (collectively and individually), senior leadership, and the Athletics Department with respect to communications. In addition, the Board of Regents should consider implementing a policy defining clear channels for Regent requests and other forms of communications with University staff, including the Athletics Department. Such a policy would improve the working relationship and better serve the University.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM BOYCOTT

Dorsey & Whitney concluded that multiple factors contributed to boycott:

  • Underlying alleged misconduct
  • A lack of understanding by student-athletes and Athletics Department personnel of the Student Conduct Code disciplinary process
  • Allowing access to and influence over the football team and coaching staff by third parties
  • Weak leadership by the football team coaching staff, and Impaired communications and a breakdown in trust between the University leadership and the football team due in part to the University leadership’s inability to share private student information

Dorsey & Whitney also concluded that the boycott may have been managed better had the Board of Regents collectively, individual Regents, and University administration, the Athletics Department, and football team coaches responded in a more coordinated and unified manner.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Dorsey & Whitney made several recommendations to the University of Minnesota based on its findings:

  • Evaluate whether the guidance or authority provided to [Athletics Department] coaches and staff is appropriate for serious offenses.
  • Consider revising and simplifying the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct to standardize violations and possible sanctions. Consider coordinating Team Rules to avoid conflicts between teams, and clarify the notice provided to student-athletes on rules and consequences.
  • Republish the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct and provide periodic training on the Student Conduct Code and Student Conduct Code disciplinary procedures.
  • The University provides substantial due process protections in its EOAA investigations, including protections that far exceed the due process protections of other Big 10 Universities. Some witnesses suggested incorporating additional protections, including recording interviews, higher burdens of proof (clear and convincing evidence vs. preponderance of the evidence), greater independence of panel members from the Office for Community Standards or EOAA, and notification to reporting and responding students of preliminary EOAA findings to allow those students an opportunity to provide additional information before an EOAA decision is finalized. While Title IX proceedings are not required to contain all the due process protections inherent in criminal or civil proceedings, some procedures could be incorporated in Title IX proceedings at little additional burden or cost.
  • Consider instituting a periodic peer review or audit of the EOAA program by persons with substantial experience and knowledge of the changing landscape of Title IX and university student disciplinary processes in Big 10 universities
  • Consider characterizing EOAA’s conclusions as to whether students have violated the Student Conduct Code or other University rules as “Charges” instead of “Findings.” (EOAA would continue to make factual findings.)
  • Consider amnesty for reporting students to encourage reporting of violations of University rules
  • Include a clear intent standard defining the “aiding and abetting” provision of the Student Conduct Code
  • Collaborate with other Big 10 universities to determine and implement best practices in reducing sexual misconduct among student-athletes

A link to the full report is available here.

University of Minnesota statement 

We are appreciative of the Board of Regents, the University's Office of the General Counsel and Office of Internal Audit, and the outside counsel for their focus and attention to this important work. We are pleased with the conclusion that the University's actions were consistent with University policies and federal law. Conclusions aside, there is always room for reflection and improvement. We welcome the suggestions from the joint report, and will be taking them into further consideration as part of the President's Initiative on Sexual Misconduct.

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