- By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz American-Statesman Staff
When a University of Texas associate professor of English emailed one of his graduate students late one night to say he was “quite smitten” with her ability to “write like a dream,” it marked the beginning of a romantic and sexual relationship that would violate university rules, stain the professor’s reputation — though not cost him his job — and alter the student’s career trajectory.
The case illustrates how an inappropriate relationship can create aftershocks years after it ended for students and faculty members alike. A review by the American-Statesman also raises questions about whether other faculty members should have blown the whistle on their colleague’s conduct.
The relationship between graduate student Jenn Shapland and tenured faculty member Coleman Hutchison lasted from November 2011 to February 2012, but UT officials didn’t learn about it until October 2017, when Shapland, who graduated from the university in 2016 with a Ph.D., wrote about it in the Arkansas International, a literary journal. She didn’t name the professor in her piece, but it was clear to many with ties to the English department that it was Hutchison.
Shapland and Hutchison soon confirmed their relationship to university officials, who had begun what turned out to be an eight-month investigation, including interviews with more than two dozen people conducted by the university’s Office for Inclusion and Equity and Office for Legal Affairs.
A partially redacted copy of UT’s investigation report obtained by the Statesman concluded that Hutchison violated three university policies: the consensual relationship policy, for his failure to immediately alert his supervisor; the sexual misconduct policy, for engaging in an unreported consensual relationship with a student; and the sexual misconduct provision of a policy barring a variety of conduct, for making comments of a sexual nature to four graduate students. The report cleared Hutchison of allegations that his behavior rose to the level of sexual harassment.
“I consider your conduct … to be a failure to meet the professional and ethical standards to which the university holds members of its faculty in their interactions with students,” Maurie McInnis, the university’s executive vice president and provost, told Hutchison in a letter obtained by the Statesman through an open-records request.
McInnis barred Hutchison, effective in June and continuing for two academic years, from supervising graduate students by himself, from consideration for promotion to full professor and from appointment to any administrative or leadership position. In addition, she required him to participate in “one or more discussions” with associate deans regarding “appropriate interactions and boundaries with students” and ordered him to develop a plan on managing “professional working relationships with students in the future.”
Separately, school officials canceled plans this month for Hutchison to teach two undergraduate courses during the fall semester. He will continue to be paid. “His duties will focus on his scholarship and other service responsibilities that the department or college may require,” said Shilpa Bakre, a UT spokeswoman.
Hutchison, 41, did not respond to messages from the Statesman seeking comment. In an email to McInnis regarding the punishment she was imposing, he called it “both appropriate and proportionate” and said he would not file a grievance. And in a message to colleagues in June, he wrote, “I apologize for any harm that my actions — both witting and unwitting — have caused.” However, he disputed some of the allegations against him, including that he made comments to graduate students about the attractiveness of some female scholars, according to the report.
Rising number of reports
UT has imposed a broad range of sanctions on employees deemed in violation of its sexual misconduct policies in recent years, according to records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.
For example, Sahotra Sarkar, a professor of philosophy and integrative biology, was suspended for a semester last year, placed on half-time leave without pay and restricted during that time from teaching or advising after students complained that he invited them to swim with him at nude beaches, asked them to pose nude for photographs and held many school-related meetings at bars. In a memo to the provost, Sarkar denied many of the allegations, although he admitted discussing the possibility of one of the complainants posing nude as a paid model.
Remedios Avila, a building attendant in the Division of Housing and Food Service, was fired last year after another employee accused him of inappropriate comments of a sexual nature. Alfredo Campa, a maintenance mechanic, received a written reprimand last year after employees complained of inappropriate interactions with a female co-worker.
Jay Boisseau, who had been director of UT’s supercomputing center, and Bradley J. Holliday, an associate professor of chemistry, resigned in 2014 and 2016, respectively, after school officials informed them that they had been accused of inappropriate relationships and sexual misconduct. In Boisseau’s case, the university paid his accuser, a subordinate at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, $325,000 to settle her claims.
In a case that, like Hutchison’s, came to light years after the misconduct occurred, Major Applewhite, then an assistant football coach, was ordered to undergo counseling after he had a consensual relationship with a student trainer on a bowl game trip after the 2008 season. He later was promoted and is now head coach at the University of Houston.
Women’s track and field coach Bev Kearney was forced out in 2013 after UT learned she had a relationship with a Longhorns athlete 10 years earlier. UT agreed in June to settle a race and gender discrimination lawsuit in which Kearney claimed she was treated differently than Applewhite.
Reports alleging sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and sex discrimination have increased steadily at UT. For example, students filed 69 such reports in the 2012-13 academic year and 445 in 2016-17.
“We view this positively, since it suggests survivors have become more willing to report their experiences, trusting the university to review them,” McInnis said in a message to faculty, friends and alumni of the English department.
Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, which includes the English department, said he was part of a group of senior UT officials who agreed that punishment short of dismissal was appropriate for Hutchison.
“If it were ever to happen again, or anything along these lines, I would strongly advocate termination,” Diehl said. “Had all this not happened, he might have been in the running to be department chair. He’s a productive scholar, an excellent teacher.”
Delaney Harness, a graduate student in communications and legislative affairs director for the Graduate Student Assembly, said the university should have dismissed Hutchison. “It’s clear that he is using his power over his students to the point that they feel they have no other option but to acquiesce,” she said.
The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, criticized Hutchison’s punishment in an editorial as “little more than a slap on the wrist.”
Colleges and universities vary in the sanctions they impose for sexual misconduct, said Peter Lake, a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Florida who has written extensively on Title IX, the law banning discrimination on the basis of sex at educational institutions receiving federal funding.
“You’re looking at a climate right now with a lot of high-profile incidents involving faculty, staff and athletic directors,” Lake said. “In this milieu, there’s always a group that will call for severe punishment. You can certainly understand the energy. It’s an ongoing debate.”
Crossing line into sexual misconduct
Shapland, an editor and writer who teaches creative nonfiction writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, a small college in Santa Fe, declined an interview request from the Statesman. In the Arkansas International article, titled “Maybe I Just Needed to Kill,” as well as in an article in the online publication Splinter that quoted her, she described a relationship with Hutchison that left her feeling used, angry and unwilling to remain at UT for a postdoctoral position that might have led to a tenure-track job in academia.
She told UT investigators that she thought the relationship was consensual at the time but in retrospect felt that Hutchison pressured, manipulated and sexually harassed her when she was feeling vulnerable in her academic pursuits and her personal life. The UT report said emails and handwritten letters show that Shapland pursued Hutchison as much as he pursued her.
After the Arkansas International article was published 10 months ago, several other people filed complaints with UT accusing Hutchison of sexual harassment, some anonymously and some identifying themselves as former graduate students. “However, no witness identified any other graduate students and none of the seven former graduate students interviewed said they ever felt sexually harassed or pursued by” Hutchison, the report said.
But Hutchison’s conversations with four current graduate students crossed the line into sexual misconduct, the investigators concluded. The students told investigators that he made comments about sex lives, the attractiveness of female scholars, whether a scholar was “really cute” and why he and various scholars would not have been able to date. Although Hutchison denied making comments about the scholars’ attractiveness, the investigators concluded that it was more likely than not that he did “because three separate current graduate students independently provided the information.”
Hutchison told investigators that he never dated or had sex with an undergraduate student but that he had a few dates with two graduate students in other departments over whom he had no supervision, according to the report. The only other relationship he had with a graduate student in the English department was with a woman he married in March 2015. He disclosed that relationship immediately in 2012 and had no future supervisory role over her.
In his message to colleagues, Hutchison wrote, “This investigation has made clear to me the degree to which those two relationships (and the lore surrounding them) have made people uncomfortable. I sincerely apologize for that discomfort. I also regret very much that I said anything at any point in time that made anyone uncomfortable.”
Three faculty members in the English department, including the chairwoman, learned of the Shapland-Hutchison relationship but did not alert senior UT officials. None has been sanctioned because UT rules at the time did not specifically require such reporting and the faculty members had reason to believe the matter had been addressed, according to the university.
“If this type of situation were to occur in 2018, the university would expect faculty members who learn of or suspect the existence of such a relationship to report it to the appropriate university employee or office,” UT’s Bakre said.
In addition to faculty members, many other UT employees are required under a policy adopted in July 2015 to promptly report concerns about sex discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, interpersonal violence and stalking to the university’s Title IX office. Those employees include administrators, coaches, academic advisers and graduate students working as assistant instructors, teaching assistants or research assistants.
In hindsight, longing for a different course
UT’s report said Ann Cvetkovich, an English professor who taught a fall 2011 course with Hutchison that Shapland took, told investigators that she had a conversation with Hutchison about his email exchange with the student. Cvetkovich advised him not to pursue the relationship because it would be inappropriate. Hutchison told investigators that he spoke with Cvetkovich in December 2011 about email correspondence and kissing and that Cvetkovich agreed to grade Shapland’s final project, according to the report.
“With only minimal and partial information from Cole Hutchison, I strongly discouraged him from pursuing relations of any kind with Jenn Shapland,” Cvetkovich told the Statesman in an email. “If I had had the full picture, I would have intervened even more vigorously.
“That I and other faculty members did not have information that appears to have routinely circulated amongst graduate students is of great concern to me,” Cvetkovich added. “We are already working proactively in the English department to acknowledge this lack of communication and to build the relations of trust that would make it more possible for students to come forward with any interactions with faculty that warrant reporting, especially under current Title IX regulations, which have changed since the events of 2011-12.”
Heather Houser, an associate professor of English, told investigators that she became aware of Hutchison’s relationship with Shapland in the fall of 2011, according to the UT report. Houser agreed to advise Shapland at Hutchison’s request.
Houser told the Statesman in an email that she hesitates “to comment on a report whose contents I haven’t seen.” Efforts by the English department to improve communication within the department include formation of a task force led by graduate students, she said.
“Even when working relationships seem on good terms, many graduate students don’t feel comfortable sharing problems or concerns with their professors,” Houser said. “Within the department, many of us are working toward healing by listening to students one-on-one, in small groups, or within our seminars.”
Elizabeth Cullingford, professor and chairwoman of the department, told investigators that she first learned of the relationship between Hutchison and Shapland in March 2014. Cullingford said Hutchison implied that it was a “failed romance.”
“When Professor Hutchison mentioned the relationship to me in 2014, he did not make its nature clear,” Cullingford said in an email to the Statesman. “Knowing what I now know, I wish I had alerted higher authorities at that time, as the current policy requires, and as I did when I contacted the Office of Inclusion and Equity on October 13th 2017.”
Marvin Hackert, interim dean of graduate students, appointed Hutchison graduate adviser for the English department in January 2016, citing recommendations from Cullingford and Diehl, the liberal arts dean. The graduate adviser is an important figure in the department, meeting with graduate students about their courses, teaching assignments and funding for travel to conferences, and exerting influence over those matters.
“In hindsight, I think that appointing Professor Hutchison to the position of graduate adviser was a mistake,” Cullingford said.
Diehl told the Statesman that he knew nothing about Hutchison’s relationship with Shapland, although he was aware of the professor’s relationship with the student he married. “My reading of that case was he behaved consistently with UT policy at the time. Had I known about the Jenn Shapland case, I would not have approved” Hutchison’s appointment as graduate adviser, Diehl said.
Shapland told Splinter that, had she felt more comfortable in UT’s English department, she might have stayed to pursue a tenure-track position.
“Instead,” she said, “it was very clear to me by the spring of 2016 that I just wanted to get as far away from that department as possible.”
Her first book, “The Autobiographies of Carson McCullers,” inspired by love letters between the novelist and another woman that Shapland reviewed at UT’s Ransom Center, is scheduled to be published next year.