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UT-Austin announces updates to sexual misconduct policies after student protests

The school will make termination the “presumptive punishment” for employees who commit sexual assault or sexual harassment, among other offenses. It will also make available to the public information about those found responsible but not fired for such offenses.

University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves, left, Provost Maurie McInnis, and Vice President for Student Affairs ...

The University of Texas at Austin will make termination the “presumptive punishment” for employees who commit sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or interpersonal violence, and it will make available to the public information about those not fired for the four offenses.

The planned policy changes come after an external law firm hired to review the flagship’s sexual misconduct-related policies delivered recommendations to UT-Austin President Greg Fenves. He said Monday he accepted all the suggestions — which are “designed to better support survivors, provide clear disciplinary guidelines and improve communication with the campus community” — and that UT would begin implementing them. The announcement comes months after students began protesting that professors punished by UT for sexual misconduct were still teaching undergraduates, and weeks after students condemned the school's handling of sexual misconduct cases at an emotional forum in late January.

Providing information about professors found responsible for misconduct was one of the student protesters’ top demands.

Fenves said Monday that if a university employee engaged in the four categories of misconduct but was not terminated because of “mitigating factors,” information about the case would be “compiled and made publicly available, while preserving the privacy of the survivors.” He said a “thorough investigation” would precede each finding of misconduct.

Fenves also said experts in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work would be consulted about introducing alternative resolution options and restorative justice for sexual misconduct-related matters.

The university fast-tracked the production of the recommendations after the January forum, in which students tearfully recounted being subjected to sexual misconduct or going through the university’s investigative process. Others said administrators had failed the student body and accused administrators of protecting professors with histories of misconduct.

"Why would you be hiding the fact that we're in rooms with sexual predators every time we go to class?" one woman asked at the forum.

Fenves said shortly after the event that the school would hire two additional investigators to help look into misconduct complaints more quickly.

Since the protests began last fall, UT has formed a working group on the subject with students, faculty and administrators. It also hired the external firm, Husch Blackwell, whose lawyers participated in the working group and held several “listening sessions” with various parties on campus.

The lawyers' suggestions include consolidating and expanding confidential resources for students, and adding timelines to encourage quicker resolution of sex discrimination complaints.

UT has released lists of employees found to have violated sexual misconduct-related policies before, but only in response to public information requests. Under pressure from students, the university disclosed in January that 17 employees were found to have violated its sexual misconduct-related policies between November 2017 and December 2019. Three faculty members were on the list. The external firm said in its recommendations that proactively publishing the names of policy violators was "not utilized by any of the peer institutions benchmarked for this review; however, we believe there are unique legal issues in Texas, including the mandatory reporting law and Texas’s robust public information law, that warrant a unique approach.”

The university has previously used a range of sanctions to penalize professors found responsible for sexual misconduct, with the severity of the punishment corresponding with the offense.

Texas A&M University overhauled its sexual misconduct-related policies in 2018 after a review from the same external firm, Husch Blackwell. The school now requires that any employee found responsible for sexual harassment be automatically fired.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters 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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