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UT-Austin students condemn school's handling of sexual misconduct cases

"You're not trying to help us," university President Greg Fenves and other administrators were told at an emotional public meeting called after months of campus protests.

Students raise papers printed "NO," disagreeing with a panelist's answers during the Open Dialogue with UT Leadership about …

University of Texas at Austin students were emotional and accusatory Monday as university President Greg Fenves and other school administrators responded to nearly two hours of questions about the flagship’s sexual misconduct policies in a long-anticipated forum.

The meeting followed months of sit-ins and demonstrations by undergraduates disturbed that professors who have violated the university's sexual misconduct policies were still teaching classes. The university has formed a working group with students and hired a law firm to do an external review of its policies, but students who spoke in the packed auditorium Monday night grew visibly frustrated as they posed previously submitted and impromptu questions.

“You're not trying to help us, you're trying to placate us and silence us, and I just want to see some emotion from you,” said one woman. “I just want you to acknowledge that you are failing us.”

The tone was set early in the evening, when Fenves was asked why students should “trust your determination of who constitutes a safety threat.”

“I have confidence in our system. We work very hard to have the right policies, to address allegations of misconduct,” he said. “But the question is not do I have confidence in our system, the question is do you?"

Throughout the evening, many in the room emphatically waved sheets of paper with the word “NO” on them, including when administrators made statements like, “We hear you.”

At one point, a woman asked, "Why would you be hiding the fact that we're in rooms with sexual predators every time we go to class?"

Fenves responded, “I hear the fear you have in your question. … Are you sitting in a classroom with a faculty member who you need to be afraid of? And that deeply distresses me that faculty are viewed that way by students.”

She fired back, “I'm sorry, just to clarify, if you're worried about me being scared in the classroom, why would you have someone that I should be scared of in the classroom?”

Provost Maurie McInnis and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly, who are both part of the working group, answered questions alongside Fenves, who said he didn’t believe there are faculty members in classrooms that students need to fear.

He said UT has a “very active Title IX office,” the campus unit that oversees gender equity issues; that there had been changes to the policies related to sexual misconduct in past years; and that more would be coming as part of a recently passed state law.

“This is your opportunity to speak. We're here to listen. We want to have a dialogue. We want to respond about how we can address this very, very important issue. The student voices have been crucial in helping us think through the processes to eradicate the problem of sexual misconduct by faculty and staff," he said.

“We are committed to dealing with this problem."

Two uniformed police officers stood at the back of the auditorium but did not appear to intercede when a handful of students marched to the front with a sign reading "UT IS COMPLICIT" and chanted, "Fire the abusers," and "Hey, Fenves, you can't hide, we can see with whom you side." The protestors appeared to leave quickly on their own.

A flyer distributed at the forum says that Husch-Blackwell, the external law firm, will hold office hours to take student input next month before it submits findings and recommendations to university leadership in April. The firm “will provide guidance on how UT can create an environment where students feel safe to report inappropriate conduct, feel protected from retaliation and understand the resources available to support them,” it says.

The student protests last fall concentrated on two faculty members, English professor Coleman Hutchison and integrative biology and philosophy professor Sahotra Sarkar, whose cases had been previously covered in the news.

Sarkar was suspended for a semester after students complained he asked them to pose for nude photos, asked them to swim with him at a nude beach and led uncomfortable conversations that were “sexual in nature,” according to UT documents. He disputed the allegations in a statement to the university but was placed on half-time leave without pay and restricted from teaching or advising students during the suspension.

Hutchison made “inappropriate remarks” to graduate students and did not report that he’d entered into a consensual relationship with one, according to media reports and a summary of a UT investigation. He was banned from supervising graduate students on his own for two years, and his undergraduate courses were later canceled for one semester.

Both were teaching undergraduates last fall, and students have said they were surprised to learn of their professors’ misconduct history from friends or on social media.

“We don't know who we're in a classroom with,” senior Alyssa Ashcraft said at the time. “That's the concerning part to students.”

Since the protests began, administrators have disclosed information about 17 employees, including three faculty members, who were found to have violated its sexual misconduct-related policies between November 2017 and December 2019. The list was released under public information laws earlier this month.

An earlier list shows 11 employees breached the policy during the 2013 to mid-2017 period. The university also posts sexual misconduct statistics online.

But student protesters would like administrators to take the additional step of proactively publicizing information about policy violators so that they can use it when choosing their classes.

“What I’d like them to do is permanently put it on a website so future students have access to it,” sophomore Tasnim Islam, an organizer with the recently formed Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct, told The Texas Tribune. Students can then “arm themselves with this information so they’re safe on campus and know what classes to register for,” she said.

There was clear support for the idea among students at the forum Monday night.

One document produced by the student-led coalition said, “Students deserve to know if their professor has been found guilty of sexual misconduct and deserve the resources necessary to avoid having to participate in classes led by these professors.”

“Why does UT protect abusers? Why is UT wasting money on outside lawyers and consultants instead of providing resources for survivors?” it asked.

School officials have previously said they will review the students’ demands with the working group and external law firm.

McInnis said Monday that UT’s “current sexual misconduct policies cover a wide range of behaviors.”

“Part of what we will talk about in the misconduct working group, part of what we are listening to, is what are the appropriate sanctions, what are the appropriate disciplines, for violations of those policies? They cover a wide range of behaviors, and [what] we have to decide as a community is whether or not we think it is appropriate to have a policy that everybody is fired or whether we also believe that there is a possibility for people to learn and grow from understanding what is professional behavior and move forward.”

When another audience member circled back to a question of whether administrators thought they’d failed their students, McInnis said, “It's not okay that we are where we are today. You all clearly have zero trust in our system, and that's what I want us to work on together.”

Fenves responded to the same query, “By the fact that you are here and you are telling us your stories, yes, we have failed you.”

A few times during the forum, students disclosed personal accounts of being subjected to sexual misconduct and participating in the university’s Title IX process.

The testimonies were met with standing ovations, including from the three administrators onstage, and promises to rectify any inadequacies.

One woman was distraught as she described how her alleged assailant had not been interviewed by the Title IX office nine months after she filed her complaint. She began her comment by saying it was a "cry for help."

“I know today is about the professors, and I know today is about making students feel safe, but I am a student standing in front of you right now, and I am petrified, I am petrified to be on this campus,” she said. “It's not hard to report. That's easy. The [hard] part is having to go to meetings and having to deal with emails, and having to navigate and get your evidence and get your attorneys and figure everything else out. That's hard. Getting therapy is hard, getting help is hard, and I'm just here today to ask you: What are you going to do today to help people like me?”

The administrators asked for her contact information and said their process needed to be fixed if it was failing her.

The punishment for professors found responsible for sexual misconduct varies.

UT-Austin spokesperson Shilpa Bakre has said, “The type of sanction imposed in a specific situation depends on the facts available at the time," and that the punishment is meant to match the severity of the misconduct.

“Not all violations rise to a level that would justify termination. University policy addresses a wide range of conduct, including the use of inappropriate or unprofessional language in the workplace, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment,” she has said. “As it has done in the past, the university will move to terminate faculty and staff members whose violations constitute a safety threat or who engage in violations that warrant termination. The university does so in compliance with our policies, which ensure faculty and staff members receive the required level of due process under federal and state constitutional requirements.”

UT also monitors professors’ “transition back into their teaching roles” and will open new investigations if fresh allegations are reported, Bakre has said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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