AUSTIN — The University of Texas at Austin says it will disclose the names of faculty and staff with sexual misconduct violations to anyone who submits an open records request, but students want the names published online.
Spokesman J.B. Bird said UT is working to compile a summary of violations as far back as November 2017. It will be released to individuals who have submitted open records requests within this calendar year, but a university working group will be reviewing whether to publicly release the information.
“This year with the protests there’s been a lot of interest in this information,” Bird said. “Whether the university should publish the information instead of just releasing it, that’s a question that students have asked and that we’ve decided to review.”
Students have held several sit-ins and protests after learning that two professors, Sahotra Sarkar and Coleman Hutchison, returned to teaching after being disciplined for sexual misconduct.
Students told The Dallas Morning News they signed up for the professors’ courses without knowing about their history.
That’s why sophomore Tasnim Islam, one of the student members of the working group, and other student protesters say the university needs to make this information more widely available, perhaps through email or on the course schedule when they register for classes.
“If the university cares about their students’ academics, they would make the course selection process much easier on us by equipping us with the information we need and want to know about our own future professors,” Islam said, citing the cost of public records requests.
Bird said requesting investigation documents or wording requests too broadly can result in costs to the university to compile the information or redact details that would violate students’ privacy rights. He said the summary of faculty and staff with violations will be provided for free. It will not include individuals who have been accused but have not been disciplined.
People can also request summaries of violations for years before 2017, Bird said.
UT hired the external firm Husch Blackwell in November and created a university working group to review its sexual misconduct policies, including how to disclose information, in response to student concerns.
The contract with Husch Blackwell runs from Nov. 1 to Aug. 31, 2021, according to records obtained by The Dallas Morning News. It states that fees from the firm may not exceed $250,000.
The university announced Friday that the working group includes six undergraduate students, three graduate students, one post-doctoral student, five faculty members, one staff member, six university leaders and two representatives from Husch Blackwell. Recommendations from the group are expected in April.
Also Friday, students who have formed the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct protested at the steps of the university’s main building, holding a red banner with the words “UT protects abusers.”
Kaya Epstein, a first-year student, said a lot of students aren’t aware they can request records about faculty and staff misconduct.
Third-year student Hollie Green said there shouldn’t be hurdles for students to find out important information about their professors.
“I shouldn’t have to be an investigative journalist to register for classes,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to Google my professors.”
Experts told The Dallas Morning News that publishing the names of professors who have violated sexual misconduct is unprecedented in higher education and that concerns over the privacy of affected students generally prevent universities from disclosing details of cases.
UT has promised to improve its tracking and reporting of employee misconduct in the spring, and the university already publishes annual aggregate reports detailing statistics about Title IX cases, Bird said.
The university also confirmed Friday that it will hold a town hall forum with students on Jan. 27, 2020.
Sarkar, a philosophy and integrative biology professor, was suspended for a semester in 2017 for a sexual misconduct violation after students complained he had talked to them about swimming or posing nude. He was suspended from teaching, placed on half-time leave without pay and restricted from advising students in the spring, but he returned to teaching in fall 2017.
Hutchison, an English associate professor, was disciplined in 2018 after making sexual comments to students and failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a graduate student. He was barred from supervising graduate students by himself, from consideration for promotion to full professor and from appointment to any administrative or leadership positions for two years. He returned to teaching this fall.