VIEWPOINTS: UT’s uneven responses to sexual misconduct raise questions

At a time when women across the country are making a fierce stand against sexual harassment and abuse – and getting results, such as terminations of and sanctions against accused abusers – University of Texas professor Richard Morrisett might well escape such accountability.

Morrisett pleaded guilty in 2016 to a felony charge of strangling his girlfriend to the point that she saw “stars.” Yet the tenured professor remains on the job despite a school policy condemning domestic violence as prohibited conduct that is not tolerated, an American-Statesman investigation found.

HOW WE GOT HERE: UT declined to sanction professor who pleaded guilty to violent felony.

Certainly, the university is a microcosm of the larger community. As such, it is not immune from crime and other societal problems that impact communities across Texas and the nation. But what UT should not do is operate in a cocoon with rules that protect certain classes of people, such as tenured professors, from consequences of criminal acts or poor choices.

It’s hard not to reach that conclusion in the Morrisett case. UT President Gregory L. Fenves has acknowledged the university’s policies are lacking and out of step with the times. Following the Statesman’s investigation, he said the school would develop policy recommendations within the next two months.

That is the right thing to do, but unlikely to fix UT’s failures in Morrisett’s case.

It’s worth noting that the criminal justice system did address Morrisett’s violent behavior.

Morrisett pleaded guilty to that incident in an agreement with the Travis County district attorney’s office that resolved that and later cases without requiring him to spend time behind bars, the Statesman reported. He was sentenced to four years of community supervision. He was also ordered to: take a class on avoiding family violence; undergo counseling; complete 100 hours of community service; and have no contact with the victim.

By contrast, Morrisett was not disciplined by the university in any way — even though officials concluded that he failed to notify a supervisor of the criminal charges as required, and even though he was involved in other troubling incidents with the same victim.

RELATED: Computer chief, chemistry prof quit UT amid sexual misconduct inquiries.

The American-Statesman’s Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and Ryan Autullo reported that Morrisett, 57, who teaches in the College of Pharmacy, was accused of a second violent incident that sent his girlfriend to the hospital — and of repeatedly violating a court order to stay away from her. After learning of the charges against Morrisett, university officials placed him on paid administrative leave for 18 days in August 2016 while it conducted a review that included interviews of faculty members and students.

Following that probe, he was allowed to continue teaching and operating a research laboratory because of a UT policy that judges an employee’s on-campus behavior based on criteria that is different than what is used to assess off-campus behavior.

Incredibly, Morrisett received no discipline from UT because its review concluded that Morrisett’s conduct off-campus regarding the domestic felony charge did not have a direct impact on his on-campus duties. That distinction, which only makes sense in UT’s cocoon of higher-ups, protected Morrisett from discipline.

The university has been front and center in addressing sexual misconduct, assault and other crimes regarding students — and it certainly has moved forcefully to deal with students who have been deemed to cross such lines. Unlike professors, students generally don’t receive considerations that judge their on-campus and off-campus behaviors separately.

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It could be argued that the bar should be higher for employees — and particularly employees who hold tenured positions. That kind of achievement and privilege should require at least a minimum standard of conduct not to embarrass the university without consequences.

In a similar case, Aggies got it right.

The Statesman reported that Texas A&M University disciplined a faculty member who was convicted in March 2016 of assaulting his wife, a misdemeanor offense. Yong Chen, who teaches finance, was allowed to keep his job. But he was stripped of the Gina and William H. Flores professorship, and a planned promotion from associate professor to full professor was put on hold. He was deemed ineligible for any awards or honors from the university for four years.

Even with policies in place, UT has addressed cases regarding employees unevenly.

This was evident in UT’s disciplinary handling of two former athletic coaches, women’s track coach Bev Kearney who is female and black, and assistant football coach Major Applewhite, who is male and white.

In response to Applewhite’s consensual relationship with a student trainer on a team bowl game trip after the 2008 season, which was kept under wraps until 2013, UT ordered Applewhite to undergo counseling and later promoted him, which included salary increases of nearly $300,000 over a few years. His past did not harm his future opportunities. He is now head coach at the University of Houston.

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By contrast, UT announced in November 2012 that it was putting Kearney on paid leave after learning she had a romantic, consensual relationship with one of her student athletes that began in 2002 and ended in 2003. Kearney subsequently quit under threat of being fired. Kearney is claiming sex and race discrimination in an ongoing lawsuit against the university.

Kearney, the first black woman head coach at UT, ended her hugely successful career at UT amid scandalous headlines and public shaming.

As Fenves and his team re-examine policies, they should look to those cases to shape fair, unbiased policies that reflect today’s campuses and societal problems.

To do that, the university must step outside its cocoon.

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