On March 2, former UT President Gregory Fenves announced a development that clearly resulted from years of collective advocacy work from student activists on campus: UT’s sexual misconduct policies were changing.
This change should not have required so much from students in the first place, but Fenves’ announcement signaled to the UT community that activism on campus — organized sit-ins outside the provost’s office, petitions, lists of demands and investigative editorials — made a difference.
UT brought in a law firm with expertise in Title IX legislation, Husch Blackwell, to assess the school’s sexual misconduct policies. Over the course of nine months, Husch Blackwell conducted a comprehensive review of UT’s policies and Title IX operations and released two extensive reports with recommended policy changes — the first in March and the second last month.
UT administration and the Title IX Office still have a lot of work to do to implement these policies. We know the challenges UT will face this semester are unprecedented, but implementation of Husch Blackwell’s recommendations and incorporation of student feedback must remain a priority.
This spring, Husch Blackwell worked directly with student activists affiliated with The Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct, a student advocacy group that supports survivors and fights for equitable sexual misconduct policies, while drafting its recommendations.
“Our demands and (Husch Blackwell’s) recommendations were very similar, if not exact,” plan II junior Tasnim Islam said. “I think that they took what we had to say and solidified it into those recommendations.”
In response to student requests and Husch Blackwell’s recommendations, UT Interim President Jay Hartzell said UT would adopt “a groundbreaking program to provide restorative justice.”
Restorative justice allows survivors to heal and perpetrators to take responsibility for their behavior without causing further harm.
“The thing to remember about restorative justice is that it’s not a uniform process,” said Kaya Epstein, a cell and molecular biology sophomore.
Shelby Hobohm, a mechanical engineering and government senior, said examples of restorative justice include having perpetrators attend discussions with or without the survivor about the harm they’ve inflicted, or hosting support groups for survivors.
Even though students are largely happy with the recommendations, we still don’t know much about what implementation will look like.
Moreover, the student activists we spoke with said despite its many meetings with students, UT administration is not meeting students’ expectations.
In response to our interview request, Brittany Clay, communications coordinator for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, provided the following statement:
“The university has submitted a draft proposal to the Board of Regents for approval of the new policy pertaining to the Prohibition of Sexual Assault, Interpersonal Violence, Stalking, Sexual Harassment, and Sex Discrimination. The Board of Regents is expected to review the draft and vote on this proposed policy later this month. The proposed policy includes Husch Blackwell recommendations as well as provisions related to Title IX compliance based on the new federal regulations and feedback from the campus community. After that discussion, we will have more information about concrete next steps for implementation.”
We know federally funded universities must adopt policies that comply with the new federal Title IX regulations by Aug. 14. As these “next steps” will not be released until later this month, it seems students will have little time to provide feedback on policy implementation.
In March, Fenves announced the UT community would “have opportunities to provide input as part of UT’s procedure for instituting new policies,” but the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct students we interviewed said they weren’t aware of opportunities to work with administration on its implementation plan following this announcement.
“Implementation is always going to be an issue at UT,” Epstein said. “We’ve seen it over and over. They kind of give us a solution but then really do the bare minimum.”
From what we can tell, it hasn’t been made clear whether or not we should expect the University to continue to incorporate feedback from its community or if Husch Blackwell will continue to assess UT’s sexual misconduct policies.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses a great number of challenges for the University this fall, and back in March, addressing sexual misconduct at UT was perhaps unavoidably sidelined because of it.
However, UT must implement Husch Blackwell’s recommendations as soon as possible to make campus safer for everyone. Students have been instrumental in drafting these recommendations, and the administration must actively seek student feedback and use student input to guide the implementation process.