Kearney gone, clarity needed

It’s no exaggeration to call Bev Kearney, former UT women’s track coach, the most winning coach in UT Athletics history. Kearney is the first African-American to serve as a head coach at UT and the first African-American to win an NCAA national team championship in Division 1 track and field. She coached 12 Olympians, and in her three decades at UT, she won seven NCAA championships. In October 2012, Kearney admitted to having “an intimate consensual relationship” with a student-athlete in 2002, a violation of UT policy, which “strongly discourages consensual relationships between … teachers and students.” She resigned Jan. 5, right as the University was preparing to begin her termination process. UT was right to investigate Kearney and acted appropriately and consistently with its own policy. But beyond that, its own hazy and conflicted interpretation of the rules guiding employee-student relationships suggests that the policy needs to be sharpened and clarified. As it stands, the policy creates an incentive to keep consensual relationships clandestine, an explicit violation of policy.

The University’s Handbook of Operating Procedures states, “The University strongly discourages consensual relationships between supervisors and subordinates, teachers and students and advisors and students. Should such a relationship develop, the teacher, supervisor or advisor has the obligation to disclose its existence to an immediate supervisor.” Significantly, the handbook does not state that relationships between supervisors and subordinates are necessarily impermissible.

Implemented in 2001, the same policy holds that failure to report such a relationship or “cooperate in efforts to eliminate the conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety” is “subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” Patti Ohlendorf, UT’s vice president for legal affairs, cited a different rationale for Kearney’s prospective discipline in a statement to the Austin American-Statesman. “In the case of a head coach and a student-athlete on his or her team, the University’s position is that that cannot be condoned in any event,” Ohlendorf told the newspaper. “‘It can’t happen’ is what the University’s position is on that.”

But UT’s policy governing consensual relationships among faculty, staff and students as described in the Handbook of Operating Procedures makes no such blanket repudiation.

 Derek A. Howard, Kearney’s attorney, told The Daily Texan that the University doesn’t cite Kearney’s “failure to report the relationship as the reason for firing her.” Instead, Howard said, “It’s because she had the relationship, period.”

What aspect of the relationship between a coach and a student-athlete makes such a relationship impermissible? (Ohlendorf was unavailable for comment to the Texan by press time.) Perhaps the answer is the high visibility of such relationships or that a coach’s duty to her athletes is inherently of a more physical nature than, for example, an instructor’s to her students. But coach-athlete romantic pairs do exist. Two of the Final Four head coaches in the 2012 NCAA women’s volleyball championship, both men, were married to women who had played for them in college. One of them, Jim Moore of Oregon, was a former coach at UT.

If coaches can face termination for entering into relationships they disclose, regardless of the stated policy, then other University employees in supervisory roles may have reason to fear similar repercussions. The way UT handled the Kearney incident may encourage employees to keep quiet about consensual relationships.

Howard claims Kearney violated the rule unknowingly. Technically, Kearney should have been exposed to the consensual relationships policy when she completed her mandatory compliance training modules, which all University employees complete when they are hired and every two years subsequently. The training requires employees answer questions after viewing a series of computer presentations. Only two slides in those sessions are devoted to the University’s policy on consensual relationships. We believe such a minimal focus on the policy leaves UT employees unaware and uninformed about the gravity and extent of the policy.

Critics may claim that Kearney should have simply intuited that engaging in a relationship with one of her athletes was improper — Kearney has described it herself as an “error” and a lapse in judgment. But other student-supervisor relationships covered by the policy are less obvious. What about the case of the teaching assistant in your class who has no impact on your grade? Or the resident assistant on the dorm floor below yours who is also your classmate?

If it is the University’s official policy to “strongly discourage” a behavior, it should do so more directly. The resignation of Kearney, one of UT’s most successful and celebrated coaches, demonstrates the consequences that result when employees are unaware of the University’s policies.