No Teaching After Misconduct Finding

Texas case raises question: If a university bars a professor from teaching grad students, does it make sense not to bar him from teaching undergrads?

August 13, 2018
 
Coleman Hutchison

Facing questions about why an associate professor of English banned from advising graduate students and taken off the graduate teaching schedule was slated to teach undergraduates this fall instead, the University of Texas at Austin said over the weekend that Coleman Hutchison won’t be teaching at all in the coming semester.

According to university documents obtained via open-records requests, in October Texas received two anonymous reports of misconduct on its compliance hotlines. Both reports alleged that a university professor sexually harassed a graduate student, and one report identified Hutchison by name. Hutchison was alleged to have harassed at least four more graduate students from 2011 to 2017.

The university investigated the complaints, interviewing 26 witnesses and reviewing reams of documents. Texas ultimately determined that Hutchison had violated the consensual relationship and sexual misconduct policies in place at the time by failing to report a consensual relationship. (University policy has since been updated to not just discourage but ban relationships between professors and undergraduates and those graduate students whom they supervise, manage or evaluate in any way.)

Misconduct, but Not Harassment

Hutchison also was found to have violated the university's sexual misconduct policy by making “inappropriate remarks” and asking personal questions of graduate students. Yet the investigation found that his conduct did not rise to the level of violating the sexual harassment provisions of university policy.

Maurie McInnis, provost, accepted the findings and sanctioned Hutchison this summer. In a June letter of reprimand, she told him that for the next two years, he is ineligible for supervising graduate students on his own (co-supervising is permitted), for promotion to full professor and for any leadership or administrative role on campus. He’s been on a preplanned leave for a year, but that last sanction effectively ended his run as a graduate adviser.

McInnis also required Hutchison to participate in “one or more discussions with associate deans” about “appropriate interactions and boundaries with students,” and to make a plan for managing professional relationships with students in the future.

Hutchison did not respond to a request for comment. But he said he had no plans to appeal the initial sanctions against him, according to McInnis’s letter of reprimand, which quoted him calling his punishment “both appropriate and proportionate.”

The English department notified graduate students of the outcome of the investigation this summer via email, saying that while Hutchison would be returning in the fall, he would not “be teaching graduate classes, nor taking up administrative positions.”

Yet, until last week, he’d been scheduled to teach undergraduate seminars -- arguably putting him in close contact with even more vulnerable students. The campus’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan, took note in a recent editorial, saying, “Maybe they wanted to push him away from an unsympathetic graduate student community, or maybe they thought he’d be less likely to misbehave with undergraduates.”

In any case, reads the editorial, “undergraduate students currently registered for Hutchison’s fall classes have likely not heard about any of this -- a fact that makes Hutchison’s placement with them all the more concerning. This ignorance puts these students at an elevated risk. Undergraduates, who are typically younger and less mature than graduate students, are likely even less prepared to respond to inappropriate situations with professors.”

‘A Pattern’ Identified

Even if most undergraduates are unaware of findings against Hutchison, graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts have been following his case since last fall. That’s when Jenn Shapland, a former graduate student in English, published an essay in The Arkansas International all but naming Hutchison as the “predator” who’d come on to her via suggestive comments about her work (he was “quite smitten” with one paper, for example) at a time when she was doubting her decision to attend graduate school. The two engaged in a consensual relationship, but it’s one she doesn’t remember fondly (her essay is called “Maybe I Just Needed to Kill”).

After the essay began to circulate, in October, Elizabeth Cullingford, department chair, called a meeting of graduate students. Some have since criticized the way the event was handled, saying that Cullingford expressed distaste for the consensual relationship policies now in place as too strict. Others have said faculty members present directed specific questions back to Hutchison.

“People are very upset about this -- there’s a sense that there’s a very toxic environment in the English department,” said a graduate student in liberal arts who attended the meeting but did not want to be identified by name, citing her vulnerable position within academe. “Why would you go ask a predator about his history of being predatory? And then Dr. Cullingford called the rules ‘draconian.’”

Cullingford this week via email said the investigation “was necessary, thorough and fair. I never said it was blown out of proportion or draconian.”

Rather, she said she used the latter term to explain that the university’s new rules regarding consensual relationships were more “draconian” than the previous ones. “I did not mean they were wrong, just that they were more strict, but it was a poor choice of words, as I realized when I was challenged by one of the students. I tried to rephrase my comment, but the damage was done.”

She added, “I was nervous and flustered, and I handled the meeting badly.”

Cullingford also shared an email she wrote to alumni about the incident. In it, she said that she’d contacted the university about Shapland’s article and then had to decide whether to address it with students, despite the legal limitations about what she could say at that point. Against the advice of university attorneys, she said, she convened the meeting and focused on policies and procedure surrounding misconduct, rather than the particulars of the Hutchison case. And it backfired.

“Students were confused, upset and in need of reassurance, which I failed to give,” she wrote.

Despite the internal discord, the matter stayed relatively quiet until this summer, upon completion of the investigation. In a collective head-shaking recalling that over the Florian Jaeger case at the University of Rochester, some Texas students just can’t square how someone found to have behaved inappropriately with students in his charge wasn’t found to have harassed them.

Splinter, a news and opinion website, recently reported that it spoke to 11 current and former students about Hutchison’s behavior, and that a number of them “identified a pattern.” Hutchison would “tell a female grad student that he liked her writing, encourage her to meet with him to discuss it, and then begin making sexual advances,” the article said, noting that the professor married one of his former graduate students in 2015. (The graduate student in liberal arts who spoke with Inside Higher Ed said she’d heard rumors about Hutchison and received advice to avoid him prior to reading Shapland’s piece.)

No Teaching This Semester

Students often described Hutchison’s behavior as “creepy,” according to Splinter, “even as it was discussed among faculty and students alike that he was being groomed to eventually become chair of the department.” And he started serving as graduate adviser in 2016, meaning that “every graduate student -- whether or not they had been on the receiving end of these flirty emails, been desired by Hutchison enough to be pursued by him, or had reciprocated his interest -- was obligated to talk to him each semester about their courses, their timeline to completion, their funding and which classes they would teach.”

Indeed, Shapland’s piece describes having to approach Hutchison for additional funding for a summer to finish her dissertation, and her choosing instead to finish it in six weeks without asking for the extra support.

Few additional details were available this weekend about why Hutchison won’t be teaching at all next semester. The schedule change is not punitive, however, according to the information from the university, but rather an attempt to keep Hutchison "out of a potentially negative situation." Some will surely criticize the response as one that inadvertently benefits Hutchison, since many professors would welcome a semester free of teaching responsibilities. But the move does -- temporarily -- address other critics’ stated concerns about exposing Hutchison to a new group of students.

As the graduate student in liberal arts said last week, before the news was announced, “Yeah, he’s not going to be in any advisory roles, but pawning him off on undergraduates who are even less equipped to deal with this doesn’t make sense.”

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