Professor’s felony domestic abuse case prompts UT policy review

5:27 p.m Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 Local
Travis County mug shot of Richard A. Morrisett (left) and a UT staff photo of the professor (right).

University of Texas officials will review their policy for investigating faculty members who are charged with an off-campus criminal offense after an American-Statesman investigation showed the school did not discipline a professor who pleaded guilty to a felony count of assaulting his girlfriend in 2016.

President Gregory L. Fenves released a statement Friday saying the school will develop policy recommendations within the next two months and will enforce the existing requirement that school employees report arrests to their supervisors.

Richard A. Morrisett, a tenured professor in the College of Pharmacy, pleaded guilty last year to a third-degree felony charge of strangling his girlfriend in May 2016. The victim said she saw “stars” but did not lose consciousness, according to an affidavit filed by a Travis County sheriff’s deputy.

Morrisett was sentenced to four years of community supervision, a kind of probation, with conditions that included counseling and no contact with the victim. He was not disciplined by the university in any way, even though officials concluded that he had failed to notify a supervisor of the criminal charges as required.

Fenves said: “Many individuals have reached out to me this week regarding a UT professor who pleaded guilty to domestic assault after a 2016 incident. The university has policies and procedures that require us to determine whether off-campus conduct has a direct impact on an employee’s on-campus duties. Our response to this incident reflected those policies. But it is time to review these policies, to make them clearer and stronger.

“Violent action by any member of the university community is unacceptable. This episode shows we need to explicitly define conduct that is subject to discipline, including possible termination, regardless of whether it occurs on or off campus.”

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Fenves also said, “I am directing all units at the university to enforce the requirement that employees report any arrests to their supervisor.”

Earlier this week, a UT spokesman said Morrisett was allowed to continue teaching and operating a research laboratory because an internal review found “no relation between how the professor acted in this situation and how he acted on campus.”

Some elected and appointed state officials were expressing serious concern about UT’s handling of the case before Fenves announced the review.

“I find this case deeply troubling,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat from Austin whose district includes the UT campus. “This professor has had the benefit of due process under the law, and has now pleaded guilty to a felony. UT has rightfully adopted a policy stating that it will not tolerate domestic violence or sexual assault. While I don’t have all the facts in this case, I hope that standard is being applied to all students and faculty members, regardless of where domestic violence took place.”

The initial UT review was conducted by members of the human resources office and the provost’s office who are trained in behavior assessment, according to university spokesman J.B. Bird. Once the team completed its assessment, the College of Pharmacy dean consulted with the provost and legal affairs and decided to not take action against Morrisett.

The decision did not involve Fenves, Bird said.

By contrast, Texas A&M University sanctioned Yong Chen, an associate professor of finance who was convicted in March 2016 of assaulting his wife, a misdemeanor. He was stripped of an honorary professorship, deemed ineligible for any university awards for four years and told that a planned promotion to full professor was on hold. A&M officials said Chen was permitted to keep his job because their review found no behavior issues on campus.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo who heads the Higher Education Committee, said he wasn’t familiar with UT-Austin’s policies and whether its handling of the Morrisett case is consistent with those policies.

“I’m sure I will talk to somebody from the university,” Seliger said. “I think A&M’s sanctions are appropriate.”

Kelly White, CEO of SAFE Austin, equated strangulation to attempted murder and expressed concern that prosecutors let Morrisett off on probation as part of his plea deal.

“I condemn his behavior, and I really question why he wasn’t in jail,” White said.

Morrisett had also been accused of a second violent incident that caused his girlfriend to seek hospital treatment and of violating a court order to stay away from her. Those charges were resolved with his guilty plea stemming from the first incident.

The university handbook refers to domestic violence and dating violence as “prohibited conduct.”

UT students who have been accused of violent crimes against women have received harsher treatment from the Austin flagship. For example, two football players were expelled in 2014 after they were charged with sexual assault; one was found not guilty and charges against the other were dismissed.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed three measures intended to improve reporting of campus-related sexual assault, sexual misconduct and dating violence. Watson authored all three.