University of Texas students deserve to know they’re safe. That starts with strong penalties to discourage sexual misconduct and send offenders packing.
We applaud UT President Gregory L. Fenves’ announcement this week that getting fired will be “the presumptive punishment” for any UT professor or employee who commits sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or violence against an intimate partner or family member. Firing such offenders, which would come only after a thorough investigation, puts real meaning to UT’s stance that this deplorable conduct will not be tolerated.
Fenves’ pledge, coming after months of student protests, is more of a milestone than a finish line, however. UT still needs to create precise definitions of sexual misconduct, a difficult task given some of the gray areas around sexual harassment. A report by Husch Blackwell, hired by UT to review its policies, also urges the university to recognize that certain types of unprofessional behavior don’t rise to the level of sexual harassment and might merit a reprimand instead of termination.
Which kind of offense will be which? UT must listen to the experiences and concerns of students as it drafts these critical definitions. And once it finalizes the new policy, UT must adhere to it.
The university has worked hard in recent months to earn students’ trust after a series of missteps, including dishing out underwhelming punishments to several professors and only belatedly disclosing which staffers have been disciplined in recent years.
Some students were upset that UT continued to employ two professors who had been sanctioned for sexual misconduct: Sahotra Sarkar, who invited students to swim at nude beaches or pose for nude photos, and Coleman Hutchison, who also made inappropriate comments and dated one of his graduate students without reporting the glaring conflict of interest.
Our outrage goes even further back, to the university’s failure in 2016 to discipline professor Richard Morrisett, now deceased, after he pleaded guilty to strangling his girlfriend, and to UT’s uneven responses to two different coaches who had inappropriate relationships with students.
UT would provide the strongest clarity and protection to everyone if it categorically barred romantic relationships between professors and students. Current policy bans relationships with undergraduate students, but allows faculty to date graduate students as long as they don’t teach or supervise them, or as long as they report the relationship so a new supervisor can be assigned.
As we’ve noted before, professors wield significant power over graduate students who are seeking grant funding, relying on recommendations for jobs or need access to research equipment or data sets. Given these circumstances, grad students may not feel free to turn down a professor’s advances. Why should professors be allowed to make them?
Fenves made another important commitment this week: If the university makes an exception and does not fire someone who committed an act of sexual misconduct, UT will make certain information about the case “publicly available.” This speaks directly to the concerns of students who want to know whether their professors have a history of misconduct. In order for this offer of transparency to be meaningful, UT must make the information truly accessible by posting and updating it online, not stowing it away in a report that students have to file a public records request to see. Moreover, UT should provide information about employees who were disciplined for unprofessional conduct that did not rise to the level of sexual misconduct. Without those disclosures, students will rightly wonder if troubling allegations have been swept aside as minor infractions the public won’t see. (UT promises not to identify victims in any of the publicly released information.)
Students who have shared their painful experiences and rallied for better policies deserve credit for pushing this issue forward.
The Texas Legislature deserves credit, too: Senate Bill 212, passed last year, requires Texas universities to report certain information about sexual misconduct cases every quarter.
The new UT policy builds on that robust model of disclosure.
UT has moved quickly, and in good faith, to improve the way it handles cases of sexual misconduct.
But the true test of its efforts is yet to come — in the way UT defines misconduct, in the accessibility of information promised to the public, and ultimately in the university’s follow through in firing staffers who prove they don’t belong among students.