Student-staff romance: clearer rules needed

Recent events in the athletics department show that UT desperately needs clearer rules concerning student-staff romantic relationships.

Last Friday, UT men’s athletic director DeLoss Dodds, UT footall offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and the UT System Board of Regents all released statements acknowledging that Applewhite engaged in “inappropriate, consensual behavior with an adult student” in 2009, according to Dodds’ statement. Applewhite and Dodds released the statements after The Daily Texan uncovered through an Open Records Request a letter from Dodds disclosing “inappropriate conduct” by Applewhite at the Fiesta Bowl. The revelations about Applewhite’s behavior follow former women’s track coach Bev Kearney’s coerced resignation. She quit after acknowledging an “intimate consensual relationship” with a student-athlete in 2002. Following a highly unusual and urgently-called Sunday meeting, the UT Board of Regents announced that “Paul Foster, First Vice Chairman of the Board of Regents, will lead a dedicated and focused effort to review and study all policies in place concerning relationships between UT employees and students at all 15 UT institutions.” The review will include policies relating to “disciplinary actions and procedures as well as compliance with policies for immediate notification of institution administration and the Board of Regents whenever and wherever policies are violated. (Current UT System Rule 178 which went into effect November 1, 2012 covers these policies and requirements, but the rule will be reviewed for possible strengthening)”.We support this measure and believe it should have come earlier.

Many criticized UT for disciplining Kearney more harshly than Applewhite. Kearney is an African-American female whose same-sex relationship led to her resignation, whereas Applewhite, a white male with a shorter coaching resume, received a comparative slap on the wrist. Applewhite’s salary was frozen for nearly 11 months and he was required to seek counseling for behavior the athletics department deemed “inappropriate.”

But the natures of the coaches’ relationships with students were significantly different. Applewhite’s affair took place with a non-athlete student, and he described it as “a one-time occurrence.” He also discussed the incident with his supervisor shortly thereafter, which is the procedure mandated by the University’s Handbook of Operating Procedures in the event of a consensual relationship with a student.   However, Applewhite and his superiors failed to disclose the relationship to the UT System, which violates current System policy stating that allegations of sexual misconduct must be reported to the UT System “in a timely fashion.” Kearney, on the other hand, engaged in an extended relationship with a student-athlete on her team and failed to disclose that information, a violation of policy.

These events demonstrate the need for consistent, transparent rules about student-staff relationships, which clearly exist but are often kept hidden. The punishments for the coaches’ transgressions were steep, though disparately so. Kearney was forced to resign for her relationship, which University policy merely “strongly discourages,” and Applewhite’s salary was frozen for his misconduct and he was required to make an appointment with a counselor.

The UT System Board of Regents at its special meeting Feb. 3 discussed “legal issues concerning individual athletics personnel” and “issues related to inappropriate relationships between employees and students.” The stakes are high in these matters, both in their potential to generate a scandal and in the gravity of their consequences. The University’s best defense against future criticism is to have a clear set of rules to point to as justification for its response to student-staff relationships. Unfortunately, regarding the procedure leading to Kearney’s resignation, comments made by University legal personnel were inconsistent with its stated policy.

Soon after Kearney’s resignation, Patti Ohlendorf, UT’s vice president for legal affairs, said that relationships between coaches and student-athletes “cannot be condoned in any event,” suggesting that the relationship itself, not its non-disclosure, was the reason for Kearney’s ousting.

UT was right to exercise more restrained judgment in the Applewhite case. Although his behavior ran counter to the athletics department’s goal to “foster a culture of integrity,” it ultimately was a part of a consensual decision made between two adults and created no professional conflicts of interest.  Had UT forced his resignation, it would have been excessive. Admittedly speculatively, we believe that had a lower-profile University employee behaved as Applewhite did, such an episode likely would have gone unnoticed or ignored.

Bosses deserve flexibility to exercise their best judgment when their employees engage in student-staff relationships, as situational differences between cases are significant. But as more of these relationships surface, the University will continue to respond, purportedly, in its students’ best interests, with potentially career-ending repercussions. The University can’t hope to eliminate these relationships, but it has a responsibility to offer employees more defined rules before it can dole out judgments appropriately and fairly.