President Fenves releases policy change recommendations following backlash from Morrisett investigation

Anna Lassmann

A University committee released recommendations Thursday to change faculty misconduct procedures, two months after an investigation revealed that UT allowed a professor to remain on faculty after pleading guilty to felony charges of domestic abuse.

An Austin American-Statesman investigation uncovered pharmacy professor Richard Morrisett’s 2016 felony charges in January. In response, UT President Gregory Fenves requested Jan. 26 that a committee review the policies that allowed Morrisett to remain on campus.

The main conclusions the committee found were that the University’s review on an employee’s misconduct off-campus should be expanded to consider if the misconduct violates the University’s mission, core values or code of conduct. Additionally, the committee found no substantive changes to the University’s policies needed to be made except for clarifying an amendment requiring employees to disclose their criminal cases.

“These proposed policies and updated procedures focus on disciplinary action related to conduct, not to speech or viewpoints,” Fenves said in an email. “They provide the University with clearer guidelines so that we may live up to the values of The University of Texas.”

Morrisett was charged with a felony in May 2016 after an incident in which he strangled his girlfriend until “she saw stars,” an arrest affidavit said. Morrisett was later accused of another violent incident in July 2016 that sent his girlfriend to the hospital and violated a restraining order, according to multiple arrest affidavits. 

Morrisett’s plea deal, made in February 2017, involved an agreement with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office that resolved his cases and sentenced him to four years of probation, 100 hours of community service and a required class on family violence.

The review committee included representatives from human resources, legal affairs and the Faculty Council, as well as the executive vice president and the senior vice president.

The policies the committee reviewed included criminal background checks, prohibition of sexual discrimination, misconduct, assault and interpersonal violence, standards of conduct, prohibition of campus violence, student discipline and conduct, procedures for employee dismissal and the University code of conduct.

“The expansion of employee reviews to include the mission, core values or code of conduct of the University is effective immediately,” UT spokesman J.B. Bird said in an email. 

“We added language about the mission, core values and code of conduct to have a more comprehensive view of the obligations of University employment,” Bird said. “Our focus in the past has always been on conduct at work and, for off-campus misconduct, its connection to work duties. This change acknowledges cases where it may not be possible to separate private or off-campus misconduct from that which affects the University.”

Melissa Kang, the pharmacy council president said she supports the recommendations of the committee report and is glad they have finally been released.

“After patiently waiting two months, the students are relieved the policy recommendations have been released,” Kang, a pharmacy graduate student, said in an emailed statement. “We fully support the amendments to the Criminal Background Check policy and the annual audit of overall case analysis. However, we hoped for better transparency on how cases are reviewed and what the investigation entails. We are confused as to how the University’s Mission, Core Values, and Code of Conduct did not previously play a role in criminal violation reviews by employees.”