Improve communication on sexual misconduct reform

Transparency. Regular communication. Prompt disclosure. All are practices students hoped to see the University adopt regarding sexual misconduct on campus after former UT President Gregory Fenves accepted law firm Husch Blackwell’s initial recommendations March 2, 2020.

Since July 8, 2020, when UT President Jay Hartzell announced he had accepted the second set of Husch Blackwell’s recommendations, the campus community has yet to receive any significant updates from UT on the implementation timeline of these new policies. Since then, students have been left to wonder and wait.

When the University doesn’t communicate, students don’t know whether changes to Title IX policies and programs are ongoing or stalled. Students don’t know if their professors have recently been sanctioned for violating sexual misconduct policy.

One of Husch Blackwell’s initial recommendations encouraged the University to proactively disclose the names of employees who remain employed by UT after being sanctioned for sexual misconduct.

Students have received no reassurances from administration that sexual misconduct reform is and has remained a priority on campus. If UT has no new names to disclose at this time, it needs to tell us that.

“Jay Hartzell had made no effort to communicate, or even give the illusion that a year’s worth of student time and energy and fear are still even on the agenda at UT,” said Kaya Epstein, a cellular and molecular biology junior.

Epstein, a member of the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct and the Student Government Interpersonal Violence Prevention policy director, has spent years organizing around improving UT’s sexual misconduct policies. However, Epstein said they have received no communication from the President and his administration about implementing the Husch Blackwell recommendations since July 2020.

In an emailed statement, Title IX coordinator Adriana Alicea-Rodriguez said if any UT employee is found to have committed sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or interpersonal violence, the presumptive sanction is termination.

“If there is a case in which a UT employee is found to have engaged in one of these four types of prohibited conduct and the employee is not terminated, the University will make that information available to the campus community and public,” Alicea-Rodriguez said. “To date, no new cases have met the criteria for disclosure as outlined in the policy. Therefore, the University does not have any names to publish at this time.”

UT last released a list of names in January 2020, which included three faculty members that are still employed by the University and teaching classes: Johann Hofmann, Kevin Dalby and Coleman Hutchison.

In October of last year, the Texan’s news department reported that “University employees reported over 1,000 accounts of sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking incidents from January to August” 2020.

It’s not unreasonable for students to worry for their safety while in the classroom, especially when the University doesn’t provide enough information for them to make informed scheduling decisions.

Zoe de Beurs, former Natural Sciences Council president and physics, mathematics and astronomy senior, said students need to know whether University administration is planning to continue to enact changes and regularly update the campus community, or if student leadership will have to keep pushing administration to do so.

“It would be nice if they could still release some kind of statement, even just, ‘This is the date that we’re releasing (the names); Okay, there are zero,’” de Beurs said. “Otherwise … students fall through the cracks and we won’t necessarily be able to make sure that students are safe and can make informed decisions.”

It’s been over a year since Fenves accepted Husch Blackwell’s initial recommendations. We understand the pandemic has certainly hindered efforts in unanticipated ways, but communication from the University regarding sexual misconduct reform and Title IX changes must improve.

“What they need to do is release a report biyearly at the minimum that no professors have been found guilty, no professors have been guilty and retained, etc.,” Epstein said. “Regardless of if there have been cases and people found guilty or not, the University owes students the comfort of knowing.”

If there are no new names to proactively disclose, students still need to know.