Explaining the Husch Blackwell recommendations: There’s still more to be done

Content Warning: Discussion of sexual misconduct. 

Sexual misconduct has consistently been an issue on this campus. Student organizers and activists have protested year after year. Since summer 2019, previous Texan editorial boards have advocated for better response at least nine different times, specifically focusing on professors violating Title IX policy and lack of University communication

To say the least, it’s disappointing to have to do this a tenth time. 

It’s the Texan’s job to serve and inform the UT community, and the editorial board is committed to pushing for a safer campus for all students and holding administration accountable. The Daily Texan, however, is an independent student organization, and we will never be a mouthpiece for the University. In the process of researching and writing this editorial, it was off-putting to see administration repeatedly urge us to share their messaging surrounding this topic. Because the University itself has failed to do so, we will give a detailed, much needed background and update on the 2020 Husch Blackwell recommendations. 

To be clear, this editorial is for students, who are too often kept in the dark— not the administrators who are failing to inform them. In addition to the occasional update emails from Title IX, this information should instead be coming from UT administration and President Jay Hartzell himself. We urge you to keep this in mind as you read the information we have gathered. 

 

Background Information: 2019 Protests 

In 2019, the refusal to remove professors violating the sexual misconduct policy from the course schedule sparked outrage and protests across the student body. The events culminated in a town hall with former UT President Gregory Fenves and members of administration as panelists. Students testified and shared their experiences with the abysmal sexual misconduct response and process at UT and the lack of resources and support. The University also created a Sexual Misconduct Working Group comprised of student organizers to garner feedback and implement much-needed change. The protests and town hall revealed the glaring failures of UT in protecting and supporting its students.  

 

What are the Husch Blackwell Recommendations?

In November 2019, as a result of student protests and critical discussions, the University hired law firm Husch Blackwell to provide a comprehensive review of UT’s Title IX sexual misconduct policies. The firm worked with input from the Sexual Misconduct Working Group to issue two sets of recommendations to UT in amending its policy and process. These recommendations can be found here and here.

 

Where do those recommendations stand now?

President Fenves accepted all recommendations given by Husch Blackwell, and these changes are currently in effect. Below is a description of some of the most impactful recommendations and the University’s response, based on an implementation document provided to the editorial board by UT Communications. 

 

Expansion and Consolidation of On-Campus Resources: Title IX has expanded its number of resources for students, which can be found here

Presumptive Termination for Sexual Assault and Related Charges: Sexual assault, interpersonal violence, stalking and sexual harrassment are now charges that can be sanctioned for termination. Mitigating factors can be considered in this. 

Proactive Disclosure for Responsible Employees: The University has promised to publish information surrounding the decisions and factors in cases where an employee found responsible of sexual misconduct remains employed at the University. Since Aug. 14, 2020, when the policy went into effect, there have been no instances where the University did not terminate employees found responsible for misconduct, and thus no names have been released.  

Develop and Implement Alternative Resolution Options and Restorative Justice for Sex Discrimination: Those who file a complaint with Title IX under certain charges will be allowed to pursue an alternative to the formal grievance process if both parties agree.

Require Mandatory Training for UT Employees: UT employees are required to complete Title IX Basics training during their first 30 days of employment and every two years after. Prior to these recommendations, the training was optional. 

Implement Timelines for Resolutions and Options for Participants in Untimely Cases: Timelines were implemented for the investigation of a formal complaint (90 days) and the grievance process (165 days). Prior to this recommendation, these processes took around 1 year to complete. 

Centralize Title IX Compliance: Intake and assessment of reports of prohibited conduct, education and prevention, and support and resources are now centralized to the Title IX office. The office expanded from 2.5 employees to 9.5 employees. 

 

What does this all mean?

It means that Title IX has been proactive in creating a relatively more supportive environment on campus. The office deserves credit for their work; through our interviews, it became clear that those at Title IX are doing their best under the current circumstances. They’ve updated their processes, added positions to their office, increased resources, and currently work with groups on campus like Voices Against Violence and the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coalition. Though the Title IX process is in no way perfect, it’s important to remember that the office is forced to work under a larger, flawed state and legal system. Considering this, the around nine person office that is Title IX is doing what they can to improve the experience and expand resources for survivors on campus. It’s a refreshing and necessary change, and we commend them for their efforts. 

However, it’s important to remember that the University is not necessarily synonymous with Title IX, though administration is quick to merge the two. These changes and improvements are the result of the work of the Title IX office, but the University can and should do more. 

 

What can the University do better? 

After the class of 2022 graduates, there will only be one more cohort of students on campus who clearly remember the events of fall 2019. We’ve made some strides since then with the adoption of the Husch Blackwell recommendations. But make no mistake — this University still has a considerable amount of work to do to show us that supporting survivors is a priority on campus. 

Firstly, Coleman Hutchinson and Sahotra Sarkar, two professors found in violation of Title IX policy,  have not been terminated from their positions and remained on the course schedule this year. When asked why, Jeff Graves, the chief compliance officer for the University, explained that these accusations happened prior to the current system under the Husch Blackwell recommendations. Graves further mentioned that the behavior of these professors most likely wouldn’t fall under the new definitions for the “big four” transgressions: sexual assault, interpersonal violence, stalking and sexual harassment. Instead, Graves described their situations as “inappropriate conduct.” We pressed further into the issue to find out exactly why they were not able to be re-evaluated, and were eventually told that reopening a closed matter would violate legal Title IX regulations. 

It’s incredibly frustrating to hear about the legal barriers that prevent these professors from being fired; it’s the outcome of a cruel and unjust system. However, it’s also unfortunate that the explanation as to why they remain on the course schedule has to be disseminated from our paper as opposed to official communication from the University. Students deserve a breakdown from the University itself regarding why these professors haven’t been fired, whether they will be on the course schedule and what classes they are teaching. Part of our responsibility as a paper is to create easily accessible information, but we shouldn’t be the only resource available to students that provides this.

That’s not the only information that the student body has been lacking. In the third section of this editorial, we explained that we were given a document detailing each recommendation and the University’s response. We were told that this document was not publicly available, but was instead an internal document being given to us to report on. It’s unfair that this document hasn’t been released publicly to students, or that the administration would assume that we should be the ones to provide a breakdown. We shared parts of what was given to us because students deserve to know these updates in a comprehensive manner, not because we are a channel to serve University communications. This information needs to be made readily available by the University itself, not by its independent student newspaper. 

Though there have been occasional emails from Title IX about the Husch Blackwell recommendations, there has been little to no communication from President Jay Hartzell regarding these initiatives. We last heard from him regarding Husch Blackwell in July 2020 — over a year and a half ago. 

“From then on, (communication) has come from (the director of the Title IX office), because she is the person who is responsible for being the face of that,” said Eliska Padilla, the issues and communications manager for the University. 

This lack of communication from the president himself, as well as the push back to the Title IX office perfectly demonstrates the root of the issue at hand. Taking responsibility for sexual misconduct and communicating about University response and initiatives is not solely a Title IX issue; it’s a campus-wide issue. Yes, Title IX is the appropriate office for cases to be processed, but it’s not the only department that should be taking responsibility and caring about sexual misconduct. It should instead be the obligation of University leadership to provide updates regarding instances of sexual misconduct, especially regarding the professors that they employed. In fact, we need to hear from Hartzell directly about his commitment to protecting and uplifting survivors. In addition to the Title IX office, he needs to meet with student organizers himself regarding misconduct on campus. Actions like this will show that supporting survivors is a priority of the University, not just a problem that’s been delegated away to Title IX. 

Additionally, it’s important to note that although the Husch Blackwell recommendations are a place to start, they should not be the final step in reforming UT’s sexual misconduct policy. Administration continues to proudly point to the University’s adoption of their guidelines, but accepting the sets of recommendations doesn’t mean that the work is done. We challenge the University to go beyond Husch Blackwell when it comes to addressing misconduct instead of sitting comfortably as students protest. Find out if there are ways in which the law can be interpreted in favor of survivors. Investigate if it’s possible to expand definitions of misconduct and inappropriate behavior. Encourage (or, if possible, require) all student organizations to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to misconduct. Check in on what more can be done to shut down organizations repeatedly accused of propagating a harmful environment. Keep students in the loop every step of the way. There’s more you can do to support survivors. 

How a university handles sexual misconduct and how it prioritizes prevention can have a profound impact on a student’s entire college experience. Protecting students doesn’t start and end with Husch Blackwell or the Title IX office. Protecting students has to be the priority of the University as a whole, and that means communication and a constant commitment to improving instead of resting on what’s already been done. 

The editorial board is composed of associate editors Mia Abbe, Faith DuFresne, Sruti Ramachandran, Julia Zaksek and editor-in-chief Sanika Nayak.