UT Austin Students Demand Transparency In Sexual Misconduct Cases At Town Hall Event

Jan 27, 2020

UT Austin students urged university leadership to admit the school has failed them, during a town hall meeting Monday on faculty sexual misconduct.

At the nearly two-hour event, students asked questions, shared stories and protested how UT has handled faculty members accused of misconduct.

“By the fact that you are here and you are telling us your stories, yes, we have failed you,” UT President Greg Fenves said to the packed auditorium an hour into the discussion.

Simona Gabriela Harry (at microphone), a junior at UT, and Alyssa Ashcraft, a senior, wait to ask their questions during the town hall.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

Students questioned why UT does not notify students which professors have been found guilty of misconduct and why some faculty members who have violated misconduct policies are still allowed to teach.

“Why should students report to a system that has traditionally protected the identities of the people we are reporting against and which has not protected students against retaliation?” one student asked.

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In the fall, students held a series of protests after two professors found to have violated UT’s misconduct policies — Coleman Hutchison and Sahotra Sarkar — were allowed to continue teaching. 

Hutchison, an associate professor in the English Department, was found to have made sexual comments to a graduate student, discussed female faculty members' and scholars’ attractiveness in front of students and failed to report a consensual relationship with a grad student, according to a UT report.

Sarkar, an integrative biology and philosophy professor, was suspended for a semester in 2017 after students reported instances of sexual misconduct, and university investigators found evidence he violated university policies, according to UT documents.

Student organizers called for increased transparency, firing of faculty found guilty of violating the policies and long-term solutions. 

In response to growing student concerns, UT created the Misconduct Working Group, a group of students, faculty, staff and university leaders tasked with identifying ways UT can improve how it reviews and communicates sexual misconduct cases, and hired the firm Husch-Blackwell to review the university's sexual misconduct policies and procedures. It also responded to open records requests by releasing a document summarizing all cases of faculty and staff who violated sexual misconduct policies from November 2017 to December 2019. 

The report showed 17 employees — three faculty members, one research fellow and 13 staff members — violated UT’s sexual misconduct policies in that timeframe. 

On Monday, Provost Maurie McInnis addressed students’ desire to see the names of guilty faculty members publicized. She said the people who submit complaints also have to be considered, though. Before the public records request was fulfilled, she said, the university contacted complainants, many of whom didn’t want information released.

President Greg Fenves (left), Provost Maurie McInnis and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Soncia Reagans-Lilly answer students' questions.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

“We’ll continue listening to campus input on this, but we want to be certain as we wrestle with this decision that we’re also being very thoughtful of the complainants who are involved in the process as well,” she said.

McInnis also addressed students' demand to see guilty faculty members fired. She said UT’s sexual misconduct policy covers a wide range of behaviors and that determining what behaviors should lead to firing is part of the discussions the working group is having.

“We have to decide as a community whether or not we think it is appropriate to have a policy that everybody is fired or whether we also believe there is a possibility for people to learn and grow from understanding what is professional behavior and move forward,” she said. “That is a conversation we will engage in.”

UT leaders said their goal with the forum was to hear students' concerns. But many students said they aren’t being heard. 

“I just wanted to say how deeply frustrating and hurtful it is that your response to every single question is not ‘Yes, we are failing you.’ It is ‘No, we are doing something about it,’ and you’re just not,” one student said to applause. “It seems like you are just concerned about your reputation and your appearance.”

Several times throughout the discussion, students held up pieces of paper that said “NO” in response to leadership’s responses. Near the end, protesters came into the crowd with a banner stating “UT is complicit, fire the abusers” and chanting, “Hey Fenves you can’t hide. We can see with whom you side.”

As part of the review of UT’s sexual misconduct policies, representatives from Husch-Blackwell are holding office hours in February for students to share their input. The firm will submit findings and recommendations to university leadership in April, which will then be reviewed and shared with the campus community in May, UT says.