Highlights from UT-Austin’s forum on sexual misconduct policies

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Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

Editor’s Note: Since the forum was meant to be a safe space, any mandatory reporting requirements by SB 212 were suspended. Student names have been anonymized in this transcript. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

After last semester’s multiple student protests and calls for transparency, UT held a forum Monday about its sexual misconduct policies. Students were able to ask questions and voice concerns directly to UT President Gregory Fenves, Provost Maurie McInnis and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly. The forum was hosted by the Misconduct Working Group and attended by over 200 students, with other attendees filling two overflow rooms. 

Students were allowed to ask questions beforehand and during the event. Here’s a recap of some of the questions and responses. 

Student: Why should we trust your determination of who constitutes a safety threat while the University won't even give us any information about the professors or the violations in question?

Fenves: Let me start out, so I have confidence in our system. We work very hard to have the right policies to address allegations of misconduct and to take discipline. But the question is not do I have confidence in our system? The question is do you have confidence in the system? 

(Audience members hold up signs saying “No” as a sign of their disagreement.

And that's why we have put this process together to have this conversation about what it means to have trust in an institution, what it means to trust in your University, trust in the faculty member who's standing in front of a class or leading a laboratory. And that's what I want to see come out of this process, is an increased level of trust that we are doing the right things for our students. 

Student: Why should students report to a system that has traditionally protected the identities of the people we’re reporting against and which has not protected students against retaliation? 

(Snaps from audience members.)

Fenves: If there is something that happens to you — an incident, a concern, you have to — we want you to report that. … Texas has an open-records law, so at some point, if there is a records request, we do release the names as has happened recently. But we will have a very important question through this process: Once there is a finding and a discipline, does that become public? Do we release that? Do we publish that as a University? I know that’s what you’re asking for, and we hear you. And that is one of the important issues that we will be considering as a leadership team. 

Student: Looking at the history of the last few months, it took three protests for you to finally sit down with students and listen to us. So there was a lot of student labor, a lot of student trauma that had to be commodified for your consumption. 

(Snaps from audience members.

And as much as I found that disgusting, somehow it worked. I would just like to know why it took so much out of students, so much out of us, to get you guys to listen? And why it took so much out of us for you to finally protect us and give us names so we can arm ourselves with information, since you guys aren't going to fire them. 

Fenves: We hear the voices of the students. I think during my nearly five years as president, as we have worked through a number of important issues, the voices of the students are really important. I can go through some of the changes that have been accomplished over the recent years by listening to the voices of the students. The release of names that took place recently as a result of a request is similar to what we’ve released about three or four years ago. These were the cases that happened since then, so we had a history of doing it, and part of the process that we’re looking to now is what do we need to do to improve it. 

McInnis: When the last open records requests came in, we wanted to be certain that before the names went out, that we contacted all of the complainants in order to let them know this was coming. And that took some time to do, and what we learned from them is, for the most part, they didn't want it out. And we've got a lot of complicated issues to talk through as a committee, and we'll do this together. We'll continue listening to campus input on this. 

Student: 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? 

Fenves: My belief is we don't have faculty in the classroom that students should be scared of. 

(Audience murmurs, raises signs, shouts of “We are!”)

And that deeply distresses me, and if the facts of a violation and evidence we have is that they shouldn't be in the classroom, I do believe we will make that decision. But that is the crux of the issues that we're dealing with. We want you to trust your faculty.

Student: There's a new law, SB 212, which makes it so faculty who hear about a violation of Title IX policy, if they don't report it, they're fired. And yet, we have faculty members who are violating policies on sexual misconduct, (and) they're not being fired. So I'm wondering why that is. 

(Snaps from audience members.)

Fenves: So you're right about the SB 212. It does have penalties for not reporting. It actually has criminal penalties, not just termination. It is a major change. We are working through how to implement that law, and we have observed the same thing you have. ... When SB 212 passed the Texas Legislature last spring, we had already started that part of that process of thinking through how we were going to be dealing with exactly the issue that you just raised. ... What are the circumstances, the types of facts that we indeed should fire a faculty member or staff member, given those sets of facts? And the SB 212 change is an important aspect of that.

Student: An extremely brave individual stood here in front of you and all of these people and begged you to show us some emotion and empathy. And what you said is you can tell that we think that you failed us. That much has never been in question. We would not be protesting in front of your office if we did not think that you failed us. We would not have this room full of bodies (Snaps from audience members.) if we did not think that you failed us. The question and I would like to hear from each of you, it is a yes-or-no question: Do you think that you have failed us? 

(Snaps from audience members.)

Fenves: By the fact that you are here, and you're telling us your stories, yes, we have failed you.

(Snaps from audience members.)

McInnis: It's not OK 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. I want to get to a place to rebuild that trust in our policies, our procedures, our faculty — all of that. I want us to rebuild that trust. That's why we're here, and that's why we're going to continue working together.

Reagins-Lilly: We are one institution and we are one family, if I can use that word. And if you hurt, we hurt. (Students raise “NO” signs.)  And you can say “no.” And I'm still going to say we're in this together. And if you hurt, we hurt … Absolutely, we need to communicate better. Absolutely, we need to listen, we need to hear, we need to act. That's what listening looks like. And that's what it feels like. We're here. We're vulnerable as well. And we're vulnerable because you are vulnerable. We're in this together. And, so, absolutely, have we failed you? Absolutely. … There are some things that we must do better, sooner rather than later, more quickly, and we have to do that and communicate it and do that together.

Student: So I'm a student on the Misconduct Working Group. And frankly, I'm just confused. President Fenves, why have you attended absolutely zero of our countless meetings? I, and many other students in this room, have attended every single one of them and planning this event while even on vacation. And yet you still haven’t attended a single one. You stay hidden and make last-minute decisions that were what the group wanted to itself. 

The recommendation from a group and myself and many other people was that there'd be no police in this room so that Black and brown students would feel safe here. Yet, you last minute decided to put two cops in here. I'm also an Orange Jacket, and I’ve hosted multiple of your donor events and see you there with buffets and giving grand speeches. Don't you believe that you need to stop attending so many donor events and actually show up to the biggest issue at UT right now?

Fenves: I’ll attend a working group meeting. We’ll have to figure out what’s the timing for the schedule for the next event, and we can get to work on it.

Same student: And actually listen to the group’s recommendations?

Fenves: We are listening to your recommendations. We may not do them, but that’s just part of the process. We are listening, and we have done some things. This forum was part of it, and this arrangement with different questions has been part of listening. 

Sami Sparber contributed to this reporting.