UT protects professors at price of student safety
Transparency should be key in University’s response to misconduct
When the University moved associate professor Coleman Hutchison from teaching graduate classes to undergraduate classes earlier this year, his new undergraduates had no idea it was because of a sexual misconduct investigation.
The Editorial Board criticized the administration’s decision in July. At the time, it seemed like a reckless attempt to move a controversial professor away from a scandal which had tormented the English graduate community for the better part of a year.
In response to public criticism, UT announced this August that Hutchison would not be teaching in the fall. Still, UT’s handling of Hutchison’s behavior calls into question the University’s lack of transparency regarding professor misconduct.
Hutchison’s misbehavior first surfaced in October of last year, when former student Jenn Shapland published a piece in The Arkansas International detailing a sexual relationship she had with Hutchison in 2011. At the time, Shapland was Hutchison’s student. He initially pursued her through conversations about her work, saying that she “writes like a dream” and that he was “quite smitten” with her writing.
The Arkansas International piece spread quickly throughout the tight-knit community of English graduate students. Shapland’s story brought forward unspoken discomfort in the department. English department chair Elizabeth Cullingford — forced into a position of problem-solving — told students to direct complaints to the Office for Inclusion and Equity. The OIE conducts investigations into potential policy violations on campus.
Over the next few months, Cullingford called two town hall meetings to address what many graduate students and some professors described as a deteriorating department climate. In the first meeting, Cullingford did not answer questions about the investigation or the allegations, and one administrator told students to direct their concerns to Hutchison himself. At this point, the controversy remained insulated within the graduate wing of the English department.
In June of this year, the online news site Splinter released an article about the ongoing investigation, which brought the scandal into the public eye.
The next month, the investigation into Hutchison’s behavior came to a close. Soon after, Hutchison sent an email addressing the investigation to some members of the English department. He said he had been cleared of sexual harassment. But he had been found in violation of the University’s consensual relationship policy for failing to report his relationship with Shapland. He also said that the OIE investigators found that he made a “handful of inappropriate comments” to graduate students.
The next day, Cullingford sent an email to all the graduate students and borrowed Hutchison’s phrasing: He made “some inappropriate comments to graduate students.”
That email — from Cullingford to the graduate students — was the only piece of information I had when I began my reporting in July.
When I started interviewing graduate students, a more unsettling picture came into focus. Many described his reputation as “creepy.” They described an uncomfortable air about him — he paid too much attention, he leaned in too close when he spoke. One graduate student told OIE Hutchison made unwanted advances toward her at an end-of-semester party.
Several female graduate students said their older peers warned them about Hutchison when they entered the PhD program at UT. But he was the graduate adviser. Every graduate student had to meet with him once a year. Avoiding Hutchison was impossible.
With this in mind, I wanted to get to the bottom of what “some inappropriate comments” meant. It’s vague — perhaps intentionally so — and doesn’t refer to any specific policy violation.
I called Cullingford. She didn’t answer. I emailed her. She forwarded my email to the University Communications department, which handles public and media relations for the school. My email bounced through the communication network. This is standard procedure, and I’m used to it. It’s the school’s practice to make sure I speak with the person best equipped to answer my questions.
After a few days, I got an interview with the person whom the school thought could give me the best information about the case. I asked her if Hutchison was found in violation of any policy other than the consensual relationship policy. She said, “he was cleared of all sexual misconduct.” I asked her again to confirm. She repeated, “he was cleared of any sexual misconduct.”
This was not true.
The investigators found sufficient evidence that in addition to violating the consensual relationship policy, “Professor Hutchison was also found to have violated the Sexual Misconduct provision in HOP 3-3031 (Prohibition of Sexual Discrimination) for making inappropriate remarks and asking personal questions to graduate students.”
I don’t know if this inaccuracy was the result of a deliberate lie or if she was just very confident in her misinformation. Regardless, the University’s spokesperson should have known the answer to that question.
On Aug. 17, the Austin-American Statesman reported that Hutchison had been found in violation of sexual misconduct guidelines on more than one count. On Aug. 20, I received confirmation of these findings with a returned Freedom of Information Act request I had filed with the school the previous week.
The report said Hutchison had been found in violation of the sexual misconduct policy for inappropriate behavior toward students. And it looked like the University had concealed it.
At the University level, there’s an important distinction between sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Sexual harassment is worse. But, in the policy OIE used to review Hutchison, there’s a 90-day limit for sexual harassment complaints. This means that if a student doesn’t come forward within 90 days of an incident, the complaint automatically gets downgraded to sexual misconduct, a lower offense. The University phased out the 90-day limit in 2015, but they still reviewed Hutchison under these rules because most of the incidents took place before 2015.
In a copy of the OIE report I obtained during this investigation, the investigators say Hutchison could not have been found in violation of sexual harassment policies, because “the University did not receive a timely complaint within the deadline provided in the policy.” Instead, sexual misconduct was the highest offense he could have committed, and the investigation found him in violation of that policy.
The lowest level policy violation Hutchison committed — not reporting a consensual relationship — is also the only violation Hutchison or Cullingford revealed in their communication with students.
Even some upper-level faculty in the English department — who were tasked with dealing with the backlash of his behavior and deciding what to do next — said they didn’t know OIE had found evidence that he had done more than conceal a consensual relationship from his superiors.
By failing to provide information about professor misconduct, the University gave Hutchison control over what people knew about the investigation.
I emailed Hutchison twice asking for a response, but I have not heard back yet.
I obtained the results of the investigation through a Freedom of Information Act request. Under the Texas Public Information Act, the University is required by law to release public information upon request.
The information is legally available, but it shouldn’t be this hard to find. I shouldn’t have to be the editor-in-chief at the college newspaper, talk with a FOIA expert and do a decent amount of trial and error to figure out what a professor has done to his students.
We should not have to file a FOIA request to figure out which of our professors have been sanctioned for misbehavior toward students.
This information should be easy to access. It should be on the professor’s profile. We should have a database where students can search for professors who’ve been sanctioned. We already do this for organizations that have been sanctioned for hazing. In UT’s current system, fraternities are held to a higher standard than professors.
UT students filed 445 misconduct complaints during the 2016-2017 academic year, of which 44 were directed toward UT faculty and staff. That’s a lot of professors. Students shouldn’t have to understand the legal system to figure out if one of them is teaching their class.
The information is public. The school has no reason to hide it and every reason to make it accessible. By failing to do so they make their priorities obvious.
It is not the University’s job to shield professors from the consequences of their own actions. Its job is to protect and promote the well-being of UT students.
Reporting on this topic was not easy, and obtaining this information seemed harder than necessary.
I think UT doesn’t want us to know what our professors are up to. Prove me wrong.
Anderson is a Plan II and history junior from Houston. She is the editor-in-chief.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column misstated the number of complaints filed against UT faculty and staff. We misunderstood the number reported in an Austin-American Statesman story about Professor Hutchison. The change has been made, and we regret the error.