UT-Austin fires chemical engineering professor for complaint of him kissing colleague on lips

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Photo Credit: Presley Glotfelty | Daily Texan Staff

Trigger warning: This article references an alleged sexual misconduct violation.

UT-Austin terminated chemical engineering professor emeritus Adam Heller as a research professor Sept. 1 after he allegedly kissed a female coworker without her consent in January, according to a report obtained by The Daily Texan through an open records request. 

According to the report, the Office for Inclusion and Equity found sufficient evidence on June 25 that Heller violated Handbook of Operating Procedures 3-3031, an employee policy prohibiting sexual misconduct, interpersonal violence and sexual harassment. Daniel Jaffe, interim executive vice president and provost, adopted the Office for Inclusion and Equity’s findings, according to the report.

The complainant, whose name was withheld from the report, said Heller complimented her before touching her hand and elbow and kissing her on the lips, according to the report. Several witnesses said the woman told them about the alleged incident and appeared emotionally distressed, according to the report.

“As part of our long-standing practice, the University takes all accusations of misconduct very seriously,” Joey Williams, director of communications for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, said in an email. “When an investigation finds a policy has been violated, appropriate disciplinary steps are taken.”

The firing was not announced publicly but instead reported as a statistic in an October report of sexual misconduct on campus, according to the Austin American-Statesman, which first reported the firing.

 

Heller has a “spotless record of good and fair conduct,” Heller’s attorney Tom Nesbitt said to the University in a July 28 letter, which he provided to the Texan. Nesbitt said Heller has worked with the woman for about 13 years, and this was the first time any complaint had been raised. 

“I am 87 and deaf,” Heller said to the Office for Inclusion and Equity investigator June 4, according to the letter. “Even though I intended nothing sexual and nothing offensive, I understand that (redacted) has interpreted my conduct so differently than I had intended. … This will not happen again.”

In the letter, Nesbitt said Heller did not kiss the woman on her lips and has never done so. Nesbitt said the investigator never stated that Heller admitted to kissing the woman on her lips.

Since Heller is a retired faculty member, UT denied him a hearing and the opportunity to be judged by his peers, Nesbitt said in an email Thursday evening. Nesbitt said he requested a meeting with the provost and an informal resolution, but both requests were denied.

The investigation entailed an interview between Heller and the investigator March 12, which Heller completed without written declaration of the allegations against him, Nesbitt said in the letter. The University claims that no recording of the interview exists, Nesbitt said in the email.

Heller will keep his title as Ernest Cockrell, Sr. Chair in Engineering Professor Emeritus but cannot be employed by UT again or visit campus without express permission, Cockrell Dean Sharon Wood said to Heller in a Sept. 4 letter, which Nesbitt provided to the Texan.

“While I do believe that you did not (intend) to harass the complainant, your conduct … represents a failure to meet the professional and ethical standards to which the university holds members of its faculty,” Wood said in the letter.