UT-Austin to change sexual misconduct policy to terminate, release names of violators

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Simona Gabriella Harry, left, and Tasnim Islan comfort Ana Sofia Ross during the Open Dialogue with UT Leadership about Sexual Misconduct Policies & Practices on Jan. 27, 2020.

Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from an earlier version with additional information about the Husch Blackwell review of UT's sexual misconduct policies.

The University announced substantial changes to its sexual misconduct policies Monday morning. These include a termination policy for UT faculty or employees who are found to have committed certain forms of sex discrimination deemed “unacceptable behaviors,” according to a campuswide email from President Gregory Fenves.

The changes come as a result of a review of UT’s sexual misconduct policies by law firm Husch Blackwell. The firm’s first report was released to the public Monday. Fenves said in the email that the University has accepted all of the firm’s recommendations. He said UT would implement three major changes based on the recommendations: the consolidation of survivor resources, the termination of certain policy violators and the release of the names of employees who violate certain policies.

“If any UT faculty or staff member is found — after a thorough investigation — to have committed sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or interpersonal violence, the presumptive punishment will be termination,” Fenves said in the email.

The recommendations only apply to future policy and do not allow the University to retroactively terminate previous policy violators, such as English associate professor Coleman Hutchison and Sahotra Sarkar, integrative biology and philosophy professor, Husch Blackwell attorney Scott Schneider said. 

“The default is going to be separation from the institution, as opposed to now where there isn’t a default,” Schneider said.

The report recommends the consideration of unique circumstances in cases where termination may not be necessary. Another recommendation is that the University release the names of employees who violate sexual misconduct policies but are still employed.

 

Husch Blackwell was hired in November to review the University’s sexual misconduct policies, according to the contract between the law firm and the University. Three lawyers from the firm held stakeholder meetings on campus and worked with the Misconduct Working Group to form their initial recommendations.

The report also recommends the University clearly define sexual misconduct, require sex discrimination training, implement stricter Title IX investigation timelines and consolidate sex discrimination resources into one office. Currently, the University has three offices that deal with sex discrimination cases.

Schneider said there are many resources for survivors on campus, but they were scattered and not well-advertised.

“There’s a marketing problem here,” Schneider said. “There are tons of resources, and I’m not sure that students know about the existing resources. My concern is because of that, they go underutilized.”

Another recommendation the University will implement is working with restorative justice experts, such as those in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, to offer additional solutions to survivors, Fenves said in the email. Restorative justice programs focus on bringing together offenders and victims to allow for healing and understanding between both parties.

One of the demands of the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct was the implementation of a restorative justice program.

Schneider said they included this recommendation to create more informal resolution options and help the community affected by a Title IX case.

“When we have one of these cases, not only is the claimant and the respondent impacted, but a whole department can be impacted,” Schneider said. “Using restorative justice principles and vehicles (can) fix harm that the community has experienced.”

According to the report, Husch Blackwell will continue to make other recommendations related to the organization of Title IX compliance offices, the investigation process when upcoming federal regulations are released, the effects of sexual misconduct on third parties and how the University can ensure sanctions remain consistent.