The president of UT has considerably more power to determine the outcome of student sexual misconduct cases than presidents at other universities.
This power is currently being contested in a lawsuit that claims President Gregory Fenves violated due process because of possible conflicts of interest.
“It’s unfair to have a hearing process that is supposed to provide due process but still allows for the most political figure at the University to change everything on a whim,” said Brian Roark, the plaintiff’s attorney in the case.
According to UT’s policy, the president is the final appellate official for any disciplinary case that could involve a suspension. This means that after a sexual misconduct case is heard and a sanction is imposed, the only place to appeal is the Office of the President, which is different than most universities.
When asked why the president has this power, UT Title IX coordinator Krista Anderson said she didn’t know.
“I do not have that answer,” Anderson said. “I don’t know the why behind it.”
J.B. Bird, UT’s director of media relations, said UT’s policy on this process has been in place since the 1970s.
“There is a tradition of a president being the final arbiter of discipline at a university,” Bird said. “That’s what is codified in the University of Texas approach and has been for many decades.”
Andel Fils-Aime, director of student conduct and academic integrity, said UT’s policy is “pretty standard.”
However, while there is no consistent approach to the appeals process nationwide, there are some recurring features that are different from UT’s policy. At other major universities, most schools don’t involve the president at all in their process.
Among the schools that do involve the president, most appeals processes involve multiple people. At UT, the president is the first and final appellate official.
At Texas Tech University, Title IX administrator Kimberly Simón explained why Texas Tech’s president does not have a hand in determining the outcomes.
“The president’s belief is you hire people, put them in the right roles and then let them do their function,” Simón said. “If you have a president who doesn’t do this kind of work every day and they don’t really know the information they’re looking at, they’re getting some things out of context sometimes.”
Bird said that Fenves is constantly being updated on Title IX issues.
“You’re looking at a person who is uniquely well-informed about the rule,” Bird said. “He’s continually in the habit of following the cases and talking with the Title IX coordinator on this.”
Many schools’ policies specify that the appeals process examines whether there was an error in the hearing procedure so the case can be reviewed again. At UT, there is no language specifying the reason for an appeal. The policy allows the president to completely reverse the previous decision.
The Daily Texan filed open records requests for how many times Fenves has suspended students for sexual assault cases or any disciplinary case. The University denied these requests on the grounds that the information relates to ongoing litigation.
In September, the Office for Civil Rights cautioned schools “to avoid conflicts of interests and biases” in sexual assault student conduct cases and to prevent university interests from interfering with “impartiality” in the case.
The student accused of sexual assault in the lawsuit is currently suspended from UT for five semesters, per Fenves’ ruling in April this year. Judge Sam Sparks said he will hear arguments for the case before the spring semester, with the next hearing occurring on Oct. 30.
As we learn more, we will update and expand the above resource to include the most up to date and accurate information regarding the code of conduct policies at other universities.
Project developed by Will Clark and Ellie Breed.
Photo by Ralph Barerra, Austin American Statesman, and reproduced with permission.