What do you do when the university that enabled its faculty to sexually abuse you and hundreds of fellow athletes for decades while profiting from your labor removes the campsite you erected in protest?
If you’re former NFL running back Jon Vaughn, you chain yourself to a tree for 17 and a half hours—one minute for every survivor abused at the University of Michigan—and hold a demonstration on your birthday.
This Saturday, on a tree in front of the home of Mary Sue Coleman, the university’s interim president, Vaughn—a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of former university doctor Robert Anderson—will stand in protest. Survivors of Larry Nassar, notorious former gymnastics doctor and convicted sexual predator, are slated to join the demonstration, as well as the now-famous judge who sentenced Nassar, Rosemarie Aquilina. Survivors of Dr. Richard Strauss, a former team doctor and serial rapist at rival school Ohio State University will also stand with Vaughn in solidarity while he’s chained to a tree.
“We’re coming after Michigan,” Vaughn told Jezebel. “Scorched Earth.”
This isn’t Vaughn’s first protest at the university. For 150 days, starting in October of 2021, he and a rotation of fellow survivors from in and out of state slept outside the home of former President Mark Schlissel to raise awareness of the sexual abuse they endured at the hands of the university’s doctors. Vaughn stood his ground through major holidays, increasingly frigid temperatures, and a health scare. Within weeks, the occupation grew from a cluster of modest tents to a camping trailer. They were often joined by current students eager to share their own stories of sexual assault on campus and outraged to learn their school has a sordid history. In January, Schlissel was fired for having an “inappropriate” relationship with a subordinate.
Between 1966 to 2003, it’s estimated that Robert Anderson abused over one thousand former Michigan athletes, including prominent football and basketball players. Under the guise of routine medical examinations he often assured student athletes were just cancer screenings, Anderson repeatedly performed unnecessary rectal and genital exams.
Though he died in 2008 and never faced charges over the accusations, the case against Anderson has recently shocked the state due largely in part to Vaughn’s protest.
When, on Monday, university authorities removed the protest camp site—which Vaughn has asserted is on city property and not technically within campus jurisdiction—without his consent, the university forged ahead in the removal of the site despite an agreement made with Vaughn’s attorney, Mike Cox, and an Assistant City Attorney of Ann Arbor. Vaughn planned to move the camp by the evening of March 13, following a birthday celebration he intended to hold with supporters. Vaughn says university attorneys were made aware of this, though a university spokesman said only this to Jezebel via email: “The trailer, tent and other items along South University Avenue have been removed by the university. All personal property has been placed in storage and may be reclaimed. We cannot comment further, pursuant to the ongoing confidential mediation and federal court orders.”
It hasn’t exactly been a secret that despite very visible support from students and fellow survivors, Vaughn and his fellow protesters have not been universally welcomed on campus—especially by faculty. Michigan’s current head coach of the football program, Jim Harbaugh, has defended faculty members that Vaughn and other survivors claim knew of the abuse, including former head coach Bo Schembechler. “There was nothing that ever was swept under the rug or ignored. He addressed everything in a timely fashion,” Harbaugh said months ago. Notably, the university’s current Assistant Athletic Director, Paul Schmidt, is alleged to have known about Anderson’s abuse.
In January, the university and over 1,000 survivors of Anderson reached a $490 million settlement. The landmark sum, a result of their ongoing fight, is a far cry from that of a similar group of male survivors of institutional sex abuse just miles away at the Ohio State University. Their case was dismissed last year due to the state’s statute of limitations.
In addition to protesting at the university, Vaughn is also now having conversations with political strategists about potentially running for a seat on the university’s Board of Regents. He says he’s not intimidated by the school or the football program, where he was a star, and he wants to be a part of the culture change going forward. “I will never be scared of a brand that I helped build.”