Perusing the New York Times in February 2020, I saw a headline about a sexual assault scandal at the U-M. My first thought was that it was some manufactured grievance intended to throw shade on my beloved alma mater. But when I saw it involved Dr. Robert Anderson, my jaw dropped and my blood boiled.
From the late 1960s to the early 2000s, Anderson saw patients at the University Health Service (UHS) and U-M athletic department. During that period, he subjected numerous students to unnecessarily invasive physical exams.
I was one of them.
In 1979, when I was a grad student in Middle Eastern studies, I applied to rabbinical school. The school required a health form, so in April or May that year, I scheduled a physical exam at UHS. When I handed Anderson the form, he said, “Okay, first we have to do a hernia check and rectal exam.”
I mildly objected, asking, “That is part of the exam for rabbinical school?” He replied, “This is a standard part of any physical exam with these forms.” So I submitted and assumed the position.
I was alarmed that the procedure seemed more sensual than clinical and became nervous and uncomfortable. Though I presented no concern about a hernia, he insisted on examining my scrotum in an invasive manner, after which he commented, “your hernia rings are strong.” He then subjected me to a rectal exam that was equally superfluous and quite painful, leaving me moaning with a wave of nausea.
Though I was a grad student and not a varsity athlete, I fit Anderson’s preferred category of a young male athlete, having played basketball and run track at my undergrad school. He commented about my physique and asked about my sports background, in addition to whether I was “sexually active.” It felt like he was using his medical practice to groom sexual partners.
Anderson’s abuses have drawn comparisons to the scandals at Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State. All of these schools placed predators in positions of power and kept them there after being made aware of their abuse, permitting them to continue to victimize students.
I complained about Anderson loudly on later visits to the UHS, to no effect. Finally, on a visit to settle a billing dispute more than a year later, I lost my temper and yelled, “And I really didn’t like having Dr. Anderson play with my dick and shove his finger up my ass.” The young clerk, aghast, demanded that I leave at once. A security guard followed me out of the building.
After reading the Times article, I contacted Washtenaw County assistant prosecutor Steve Hiller with my own incident report. That led to an interview with U-M police detective Mark West, which I found to be informative. The administration’s initial response, on the other hand, was clumsy and misdirected.
The hotline set up through a Washington, D.C., law firm was a frustrating waste of time. After enduring a lengthy voice message, I spoke to a law clerk who had no knowledge of Ann Arbor geography, the dynamics of the investigation, or even where the UHS is! When he asked the location I said, “University Health Service.” He said, “Sir, I need the exact location. I said, “207 Fletcher St.” He said, “I need a location that matches something on my drop-down menu; there are about fifty choices.”
Anderson died in 2008, but the Michigan legislature recently held hearings on a bill that would open a one-year window for his victims to seek damages. I’m now one of the claimants.
I still love the university and cherish the experiences and friendships I had there, including writing op-eds for the Michigan Daily and serving as communications coordinator for the Michigan Student Assembly and editor of their bimonthly newsletter, Maize. It was the only time I was editorial director of anything.
I never became a rabbi–the school suggested I apply my “considerable talents and abilities elsewhere.” So I completed my master’s, worked with Ann Arbor ad agencies and publishing concerns, and managed the office and PR for the Ann Arbor Chamber Orchestra and Ballet Theatre. However, my most memorable legacy in Ann Arbor is having been the point man for the 1983 campaign to save the $5 fine for cannabis possession (Observer, April 2020).
Prosterman is an editor and communications consultant in California.
The state of Michigan runs a hotline to offer support and information for sexual assault and abuse survivors and their friends and family at (855) 864-2374.