LANSING, Mich. -- Students of a former University of Michigan lecturer recounted stories of alleged sexual assault, psychological torture and university negligence Monday before filing a lawsuit against the professor and the school.
On a Zoom call with reporters, the two former students described Bruce Conforth, a musician who taught in the American Culture department, as the “cool professor" who talked about playing music with various rock stars. They said Conforth would meet up with students at bars and advised them to follow their dreams, and that students felt lucky to take his class.
The Associated Press doesn't usually name accusers of sexual assault but the women spoke publicly about their experiences.
Conforth did not respond to a message left by the AP on his website.
Isabelle Brourman, who alleges Conforth repeatedly raped her over the course of four years, said students knew the only way to get off the waitlist for his class was to have a personal encounter with him.
Brourman said she and Conforth met several times, during which he instilled fear in Brourman by saying he was in the Illuminati, a purported secret society, and threatening that there would be grave consequences if she did not sexually service him. In the summer of 2014, she said she was getting hourly emails from Conforth and encrypted email addresses from supposed members of the group threatening violence.
“He managed to secure a world around me so that he was the only one I could turn to," Brourman said. "I was told that if I spoke of what I had read in these emails, that hell would be so sweet a punishment.”
The lawsuit filed Monday in Washtenaw County on behalf of eight women alleges years of sexual harassment and assault dating back to 2004. It also says that the university knew or should have known about the abuse and ignored it. The lawsuit seeks damages and names the university, its regents and Conforth as defendants.
Conforth was a lecturer at the university from 2001 to 2017, when he admitted to allegations of sexual misconduct and was permitted to resign by the university as part of a collective bargaining agreement, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.
The lawsuit follows the university's recent announcement of a $490 million settlement with over 1,000 people who say the late doctor Robert Anderson sexually assaulted them over the course of his decadeslong career at the school. Mark Schlissel was removed earlier this month as university president after emails detailing an alleged inappropriate sexual relationship between him and a subordinate were discovered.
Former student Katherine McMahan said on the Zoom call that in 2008 she warned the university about Conforth after he had pressured her to come home with him, grabbing her waist at a bar after a blues concert. She did not go home with him and filed a complaint with the university after she graduated.
McMahan said the person handling her complaint said Conforth corroborated her accusations and the university was taking all the necessary steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
“But Bruce was allowed to stay to keep teaching. So what happened to me must not have been that bad," McMahan said. "I did what I was supposed to do, what the university told me to do. I followed the rules and they didn’t do anything.”
Brourman, who said her abuse came years after McMahan's report, said that if the university doesn't get serious about tackling the problem of sexual violence, it “will continue to rot from the inside out.”
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.