University of Minnesota regents wrote to Gov. Mark Dayton and all 201 members of the Legislature on Thursday to quash what they say is a media-generated misconception that they care more about plugging a leak than sexual misconduct.

“This letter was to clarify that the Board of Regents and President [Eric] Kaler take sexual harassment very, very seriously at this university,” board Chairman Dean Johnson said Thursday in an interview. He and Vice Chairman David McMillan signed the letter.

The two-page letter responded to published criticism of the regents’ hand­ling of a leaked document that revealed a new claim of sexual harassment involving a top athletics department official.

Also on Thursday, Legislative Auditor James Nobles said he plans to begin an audit of the U’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints. In an email late Thursday, Nobles said he would begin the audit this summer, regardless of whether the Legislature acts on the matter, a review that could include recommendations for new procedures at the U.

The latest incident surfaced in a broadcast report by a KSTP-TV reporter who said he obtained the private university document from a regent.

After the story broke, the board hired outside counsel to conduct a formal investigation. All 12 regents, and the staff, last week were asked to sign affidavits saying they didn’t leak the document. Since leaks from public officials are common in daily journalism, a forensic investigation was considered extremely unusual for a governmental body, especially at the state level, and some said it left the impression that the regents worried more about the leak than the issue of sexual harassment.

“Please do not mistake our respect for confidentiality and honoring privacy laws as inconsistent with our stance on sexual misconduct,” the letter said. “Respectfully, we need to set the record straight.”

The letter continued, “If we cannot ensure confidentiality for those who report sexual misconduct, people will be less likely to report concerns. Individuals who come forward should not have to worry that the details of an incident will be flashed across the 10 o’clock news.”

The letter also was a response to legislation introduced this week by state Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, to require the university to provide annual data on sexual harassment in the same form already required for sexual assaults. “It’s a good time for us to reflect and maybe do things differently,” she said.

But the Legislature is trying to complete its work by Monday night, so Anderson said she expects the discussion to occur next year.

“I do think their initial response to the report was interesting,” Anderson said, adding that her concerns were subsequently assuaged by a representative of the university. Still, she said, she thinks the Legislature might need to exert more oversight.

“This is a state institution. We want it to do well and it’s our responsibility,” she said, adding that what happens at the U reflects on the entire state.

In the latest incident, the KSTP-TV document indicated that the university is investigating harassment claims by a co-worker against associate athletic director Randy Handel, a major fundraiser. The woman told investigators that Handel had hugged or touched her more than 40 times over the course of a year — often behind closed doors — and that he continued to do so after she told him she was uncomfortable with his behavior.

Handel has been on paid leave since last week. He denied inappropriate behavior, but the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action determined Handel “created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

It’s been less than two years since former university athletic director Norwood Teague resigned after sexual harassment claims were made against him by two high-level university employees. Teague twice promoted Handel, elevating him to associate athletic director in 2013.

The letter from the regents Thursday detailed a series of practices and steps the university is taking to address claims of harassment and assault, including protecting investigations.

Efforts include training on Title IX, the statute that bars sex discrimination at any school receiving federal funds, as well as student education, engagement, public awareness campaigns and metrics to evaluate the work. Public Health Dean John Finnegan is coordinating the efforts.

The state provides — and controls — a significant share of the university’s funding. In the current legislative sessions the university sought a $147 million spending increase in the next two years. The budget is still being debated at the Capitol, but a recent plan included an increase of less than $20 million for the university system.

 

Twitter: @rochelleolson