When Jay Boisseau abruptly resigned in 2014 after 12 years of building the University of Texas’ supercomputing center into an international powerhouse, school officials gave no reason for his departure.
The university made no public announcement when Bradley J. Holliday, a tenured chemistry professor, quit in 2016.
Records obtained by the American-Statesman under the Texas Public Information Act show that both men stepped down shortly after UT officials informed them that they had been accused of sexual misconduct. In the case of Boisseau, the university paid his accuser, a subordinate at UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center, $325,000 to settle her claims.
Higher education hasn’t been immune from the national reckoning over sexual misconduct that has embroiled figures in Hollywood, the media, Congress and other spheres of American life. Allegations of misconduct by faculty members or administrators have surfaced at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia, Boston University, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, Columbia University and Dartmouth College.
At UT, members of the governing board, much less the public, didn’t learn about a consensual relationship that assistant football coach Major Applewhite had with a student trainer on a team bowl game trip after the 2008 season until The Daily Texan student newspaper wrote about it in 2013. Applewhite, who was ordered to undergo counseling and later promoted, is now head coach at the University of Houston.
On the other hand, UT announced in November 2012 that it was putting track coach Bev Kearney on paid leave after learning she had a romantic relationship with one of her athletes that began in 2002 and ended in 2003. Kearney subsequently quit under threat of being fired. Kearney, who is black, claims sex and race discrimination in an ongoing lawsuit against the university.
“Recent, high-profile revelations of sexual misconduct continue to raise important questions, including how and when organizations publicly announce incidents of misconduct,” UT spokesman J.B. Bird said. “Like many organizations, UT has not traditionally made public announcements about individual cases. The university will be looking into whether to change this approach.”
UT officials said the school’s investigators concluded twice during the 2015-16 academic year and seven times during the 2016-17 academic year that a faculty or staff member had violated the school’s policies on sexual misconduct or inappropriate consensual relationships. The Statesman on Dec. 20 filed an open records request for details on all such findings in the past five years. The paper has not received documents related to the request.
A sudden fall from grace
UT’s computing center soared to international prominence under Boisseau, who secured tens of millions of dollars in federal grants for a succession of computer systems with Texas-centric names like Stampede, Ranger and Lonestar. He received glowing reviews and healthy raises from top university officials for his work as director of the computing center, eventually making $272,760 a year, records show.
Everything began to change on Dec. 19, 2013. That’s when UT officials interviewed a woman employed at the computing center after receiving an anonymous complaint, according to UT’s “summary of investigation.” The woman, identified in the summary as Employee 1, disclosed that she had been in a relationship with Boisseau, identified as Employee 2. On Jan. 7, 2014, her lawyer sent a letter to UT alleging sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and retaliation.
“The complaint alleged that (Boisseau) had engaged in a series of electronic, verbal and physical acts of sexual harassment that had occurred off and on throughout the duration of her employment,” UT’s summary said. She also alleged that he “retaliated against her by approving a change in position and salary reduction after she rebuffed his sexual advances.”
UT policy prohibits consensual relationships between a supervisor and a lower-ranking employee unless the relationship is immediately reported by the supervisor and a mitigation plan is developed to provide another way of overseeing the employee to avoid a conflict of interest, potential for exploitation and favoritism.
UT placed the woman on paid administrative leave at her request. Boisseau was put on paid administrative leave Jan. 8, 2014, and resigned two days later.
UT continued its investigation for several months, interviewing nine people to assess the woman’s allegations. A few said she had complained to them that he was harassing her.
“None of the witnesses had first-hand evidence that (Boisseau) had engaged in sexual misconduct or sexually harassed (the woman),” the summary said. “The University’s investigators concluded that there was compelling evidence to indicate that certain University policies had been violated.”
The summary and other records obtained by the Statesman didn’t specify which policies had been violated. But a Jan. 27, 2014, letter to UT from Millicent Lundburg, a lawyer for Boisseau, said her client “violated University policy by failing to disclose a romantic relationship he had been involved in with another TACC employee and he attempted to cover up such policy violation.”
Boisseau told the Statesman the cover-up was related to the deletion of text messages between him and the woman.
The “unreported, intermittent romantic relationship” began “in the 2005 and 2006 time frame” with an extramarital affair and continued into 2013, the lawyer wrote. “Dr. Boisseau did not commit any other wrongdoing,” she added, denying all allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
“Claims that Dr. Boisseau forced himself on” the woman “are not only false, they are defamatory per se and we insist that they not be published further,” Lundburg wrote. The letter goes on to detail a romantic relationship that included sex while houseguests were in the other room, discussions of marriage and a getaway to South Padre Island.
Boisseau, who is now CEO and co-founder of Austin tech firm Vizias LLC, asserted that the relationship was always consensual, saying he was “shocked” by the assault allegations. He said the reduction in the woman’s pay was related to job performance and involved input from other supervisors.
“I exercised poor judgment in thinking that because I could be objective, and she didn’t want to report it, and that we had known each other for so long — friendship predating working together — that was my hubris, to think that private life can stay private and that it doesn’t affect the workplace,” Boisseau said. “Obviously, now, I completely understand why a policy is in place.”
UT itself was also a focus of the woman’s complaints, which perhaps explains why it agreed to a six-figure payment. The woman had filed a formal charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Texas Workforce Commission, alleging that the university unlawfully retaliated and discriminated against her on the basis of sex.
The woman and UT agreed in May 2014 to settle her complaints, as well as the federal and state filings, for $325,000, including her attorney’s fees. The money came from reserves and funds UT receives for indirect operating costs on research contracts.
The university agreed in a September 2014 settlement with the EEOC to provide training to computer center employees under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
Quitting in lieu of firing
Holliday, an associate professor in chemistry, seemed poised for a promising career at UT — until Jan. 25, 2016, when the university’s Office for Inclusion and Equity received a complaint alleging an inappropriate consensual relationship and sexual misconduct on his part. UT put him on paid administrative leave eight days later and eventually barred him from having contact with students, according to the university’s summary of its investigation.
In the course of that investigation, UT heard from seven more people who “alleged that they too experienced and/or witnessed sexual misconduct and inappropriate consensual relationships on the part of Holliday,” according to the summary.
Four of the complainants cited “uncomfortable physical contact by Holliday, including touching their lower backs, rubbing his shoulder up and down against their shoulders, reaching in by their necks to touch earrings, and other discomforting touches, pokes, and tickles,” the summary said. Five said he pressured people “to consume more alcohol than they wanted to drink during group social outings,” and several said his “behavior made them think he was ‘testing the waters’ to see if a sexual relationship with them was achievable,” according to the summary.
The Office of Inclusion and Equity “concluded that there was sufficient evidence to find that Holliday had violated” the university’s policies on consensual relationships and sexual misconduct, the summary said. That led to a recommendation that UT President Gregory L. Fenves initiate termination proceedings. After meeting with Fenves on May 23, 2016, Holliday offered his letter of resignation four days later, effective June 1.
“While I do not agree with the findings of the OIE investigation into complaints filed against me or the investigative process which I feel has been skewed against me from the onset, I feel it is in my best interest to move on from my employment at the University,” Holliday wrote.
The records obtained by the Statesman do not say with whom Holliday was alleged to have violated university rules. However, a May 31, 2016, letter to him from Linda Hicke, dean of natural sciences, said his resignation was being accepted in lieu of termination proceedings under various conditions, including that “the University does not authorize you to have contact with students by any means.”
Holliday’s salary was $94,366 a year at the time he quit, according to UT records. He did not return calls for comment.
Improving the culture
A complete account of the allegations against Boisseau and Holliday, as well as the investigation by UT, is impossible to construct because a number of documents were not released to the Statesman.
“As a public institution, the university provides all records required by state and federal law, as it did in this case. There are a variety of reasons, including privacy rights, that affect the release of personnel records,” said Bird, the UT spokesman.
Fenves said in a statement that the university is working to strengthen and expand education programs and enforcement policies to prevent sexual misconduct. For example, it updated the consensual relationship policy in January to better define prohibited relationships and address actual or perceived conflicts of interests, favoritism and exploitation within the academic community. And it expanded options for confidential reporting to the student, faculty and staff ombuds offices in August.
“At UT, it is essential that we create a culture where sexual assault is unacceptable,” Fenves said. “Survivors must feel empowered to speak out and all community members must recognize and report threatening behavior.”