For the first time, almost all University of Minnesota employees will be required to report incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment directed at students.

The mandate, which takes effect Jan. 1, is part of a new policy approved Friday by the Board of Regents.

In the past, only supervisors and staffers with advisory responsibilities were required to notify the U if they learned of reports of sexual misconduct.

The new rules broaden those obligations to faculty, staff and student employees.

One of the goals is to ensure that students who come forward with reports of sexual misconduct, even in private conversations, are referred to the help they need, according to Tina Marisam, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

But some faculty members and graduate students have raised concerns that students might not confide in them at all if they knew such conversations had to be reported.

"The biggest concern that I heard is that required reporting sets up a barrier between a student and somebody who may be their most trusted contact on this campus," said Joseph Konstan, a computer science professor who chairs the Faculty Consultative Committee. "None of us wants that barrier to stop someone from telling us something."

Last month, the Graduate Student Assembly passed a resolution urging the U to exempt its members, who often work as teaching assistants or in other campus roles, from the reporting requirement. "Making student employees mandatory reporters is a drastic change from current policy," the resolution said, "and we have not heard any compelling reason why we should do it." They argued that graduate students who are also employees will be in a difficult bind if a fellow student tells them something in confidence.

Marisam acknowledged the concerns, adding that officials have been working for months to address them. "This is a complex issue, where we're balancing competing interests," she told the regents Friday. "I believe it will actually build trust in the university as actually taking this matter seriously."

She said that graduate students, like other employees, are required to report only those cases that they learn about in the course of their work.

Marisam said her office, which handles sexual misconduct cases, would not immediately launch an investigation when it receives such a report. Instead, she said, her staff will reach out to the victims to offer assistance. "We provide them with all their options," she said, "and then allow them to decide whether they want to initiate an investigation."

She added that the university will provide training for employees affected by the new rules to ensure they have "the knowledge and the tools to respond well."

A few employees will be exempt from the new reporting mandate, including therapists, victim advocates and health professionals, who are bound by confidentiality laws.

Professors have concerns

The new rules specify that all employees must report sexual harassment involving students. In cases involving employees, only supervisors and human resources staff will be required to report the incidents to Marisam's office. Other employees, the rules say, "are encouraged" to report them.

Marisam noted that the majority of the U's peer schools, in the Big Ten Conference, already have such reporting requirements.

U officials said they consulted with numerous campus committees and organizations, including those representing faculty and staff, before finalizing the rules.

Konstan, who heads the faculty committee, said some professors worry that they may have to report classroom conversations, on topics like psychology or gender studies, if students share personal experiences. "That notion, that speaking in such classes might trigger reporting, is a problem to them," he said.

At the same time, he said, many professors support the new rules as a way to ensure that victims who do speak up are treated properly. "There's nothing more harmful to somebody who is a victim of misconduct and musters up the courage to tell somebody they think can do something about it, and find out you're ignored and nothing changed."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384