Editorial: Texas A&M’s new rules send strong message on campus assaults

Updated Aug 31, 2018
  • By Editorial Board
  • Special to the American-Statesman
Stephen Spillman
Texas A&M University President Michael Young had called for reviews of A&M’s handling of sexual misconduct cases following student uproar.

Inconsistency breeds injustice. We’ve seen as much in the way university campuses across the country have dealt with allegations of sexual misconduct.

Over the past 15 years at Texas A&M, for instance, 10 students were expelled and 21 were suspended for sexually assaulting or groping someone, a Houston Chronicle review this summer found. Four people received warnings for similar allegations. Fifteen were simply placed on probation from campus activities. One person was required to take an alcohol education class.

Survivors are left guessing whether it will do any good to bring their painful allegations forward, part of the reason more than 90 percent of campus sexual assaults across the country go unreported. And some students find it difficult to continue their studies on a campus where the person who harmed them remains welcome.

Many campuses are facing a reckoning because of the #MeToo movement. Texas A&M responded to complaints on its campus by creating clearer rules and stronger, more consistent penalties for those who sexually harass or abuse others. The new rules, which mandate dismissal or expulsion in certain cases, signal that abuse won’t be tolerated. They also provide a road map that other institutions, including the University of Texas, should consider.

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As the Statesman’s Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and Eric Dexheimer recently reported, the new Texas A&M policy mandates termination for any employee found responsible for sexual harassment; requires dismissal of any student who sexually assaults another in a predatory, premeditated fashion; and calls for at least a one-year suspension of any student who commits an act of sexual violence.

Upon returning from such a suspension, a student can’t play on university sports teams, serve as an officer in campus organizations or benefit from a university scholarship.

For lesser offenses, the school will consider whether the offender can participate in sports or other programs, but anyone with a “conflict of interest,” such as the team coach or program advisor, can’t weigh in on that decision.

It still falls to Texas A&M officials to consistently apply these new policies, and we recognize some decisions, like determining whether certain behaviors constitute sexual harassment, will involve a judgment call. But the rules send an important signal: Student safety and well-being come first. Those who assault others cannot represent the school, and may not be allowed back on campus at all.

The new policy strictly prohibits sexual relationships between professors and undergraduate students, a measure more universities have adopted in recent years. We strongly urge universities to extend that ban to relationships between professors and graduate students.

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Texas A&M and UT allow such relationships only if the professor doesn’t teach or supervise the grad student, or if the professor immediately reports the relationship so a new supervisor can be assigned.

That Band-Aid approach fails to address the larger problems with such relationships, as the recently aired UT case involving English professor Coleman Hutchison showed. Then-grad student Jenn Shapland was initially flattered by Hutchison’s interest in her, but later felt manipulated and used, and ultimately decided not to continue with a postdoctoral position that might have led to a tenure-track job in academia.

UT temporarily removed Hutchison from the classroom and from advising grad students alone. But UT’s reasoning sent the wrong message: Hutchison’s violations largely dealt with his failure to report the relationship, not the inappropriate nature of making advances on his student in the first place.

Professors wield significant power over graduate students who are seeking grant funding, relying on recommendations for jobs, or in the case of some scientific fields, needing access to expensive equipment or important data sets to which their advisor holds the keys. Simply switching advisors may be easier said than done: In some advanced fields, a student might not be able to find another advisor at the university with expertise in that area.

Given these circumstances, grad students may not feel free to turn down a professor’s advances. Why should professors be allowed to make them?

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While Texas A&M’s new policy goes a long way in establishing minimum punishments for various offenses, there is room for improvement. The university should provide stronger consequences for students who take and share sexually explicit photos or videos of another person without their consent, and for students who knowingly expose others to a sexually transmitted disease. These are serious offenses that can cause lasting damage to others. At a minimum, these offenders should face suspension, not the disciplinary probation allowed under Texas A&M’s new policy.

On the federal level, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is drafting new rules that, among other things, would excuse universities from investigating incidents that happen off-campus, ignoring the obvious damage to the campus community when co-eds are assaulted at off-campus parties or postdoctoral research assistants are harassed by professors at an out-of-town conference.

DeVos has also called for universities to provide a mediation process for sexual misconduct complaints, if both parties agree, setting the stage for accusers to feel pressured into a potentially traumatizing confrontation with the person who assaulted them.

We don’t expect the administration of a president who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women to take these issues seriously, but universities must. Even if DeVos sets the bar low, universities can hold themselves to higher standards like the ones codified by Texas A&M.

Enforcing clear, strong standards sends a clear, strong message: Abuse isn’t tolerated here.