Do Unconventional Sexual Theories Border on Misconduct?

Students demand more transparency about University of Texas at Austin practices and policies on sexual misconduct by professors. At the same time, others question the continued employment of a professor not accused of or disciplined for misconduct but whose scholarship is based on controversial theories about pedophilia.

December 16, 2019
 
Angela Kang
Students posted messages in protest of the University of Austin at Texas's procedures for disciplining faculty members for sexual harassment.

Students at the University of Texas at Austin are demanding more transparency about the disciplinary process for faculty members found guilty of sexual misconduct and permitted to continue teaching after temporary suspensions.

The Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct, a student group opposed to the university's procedures for reinstating such professors, has held three sit-ins outside the office of Provost Maurie McInnis and one at the UT Tower, the historic campus landmark, over the past two months.

But some people are now questioning whether the activism has gone too far after a group of students and outside protesters from the community stormed the home of a professor who has not been accused of or disciplined for sexual misconduct​. Their actions set off a debate on and off campus about how far the movement should go to achieve its goals and whether its actions should extend beyond the legal and procedural limits of the university.

After seeing a video of the group at the professor's home, some observers on Twitter suggested the group should be sued for trespassing and did not have the grounds to accuse him of wrongdoing.

"If he's guilty of something he should be charged and our justice system can take care of it," one viewer wrote. "Masked hordes showing up at people's houses isn't justice.​"

The disciplinary process issue has resurfaced periodically since 2017, ​when Sahotra Sarkar, a biology and philosophy professor, returned to campus after a semester-long suspension for sexual harassment against graduate students, said Angela Kang, a senior and an organizer for the coalition.

When students saw that Sarkar and Coleman Hutchison,​ a professor of literature disciplined for violating the university's consensual relationships and sexual misconduct policies, were listed to teach undergraduate courses in fall 2019, student government leaders called for the professors' removal from the schedule, Kang said. Students felt betrayed by the university, said Alyssa Ashcraft, a junior and another organizer for the coalition, who called the move “a direct disregard of our safety.”

“Why haven’t we talked about this before now? It’s disturbing that we’re having to have sit-ins and get national media attention in order to get this moving,” Ashcraft said. “Austin has to really come to terms with protecting behaviors that threaten their students.”

Sarkar and Hutchison did not respond to requests for comment.

The university is preparing to publicly release a document listing all the cases where faculty members were in violation of sexual misconduct policies dating back to November 2017, Shilpa Bakre, a spokesperson for Austin, said in an email. The university has previously responded to open-records requests from media outlets for violations between 2013 and 2017 and has consistently complied, Bakre wrote.

Bakre said students have asked the university to regularly publish the names of faculty and staff with conduct violations rather than just providing a list of past violations based on media requests.

"The university will consider this idea in consultation with outside experts at Husch Blackwell," Bakre wrote

Austin has hired Husch Blackwell, an outside law firm, to assist the Misconduct Working Group, a committee of students, faculty members and administrators recently created by the university, which will determine how Austin can improve its policies for reviewing and disseminating information about campus sexual misconduct, according to the working group's website.

“I think all students would ideally want to see termination [of Sarkar and Hutchison] because if the university touts its faculty and staff as a world-class group of people, we should be expecting the best conduct from them,” Kang said. “The transparent mechanism I would like to see is some kind of semesterly report of the investigations … Nothing has been ruled out yet, but nothing has been promised.”

The coalition has strategically chosen to take an administrative approach for change, Kang and Ashcraft said. They expect any substantial shift to occur in the spring semester when the university has agreed to host a forum for students to express concerns about the current disciplinary policy, and when officials will have had time to implement additional changes under three new Texas laws for addressing campus sexual misconduct, which go into effect Jan. 1.

But another group, called Fire the Abusers,​ which is also opposed to the university's handling of sexual misconduct by faculty, has “philosophical differences” with the coalition and does not trust administrators to effectively change and apply the sexual misconduct policy, Ashcraft said. Fire the Abusers consists of students and activists from the Popular Women’s Movement, a local organization in Austin, and participated in some of the demonstrations on campus, but felt the university's response was inadequate, ​said Penelope Dawson, a junior involved in organizing for Fire the Abusers.

As conversations about Austin’s handling of faculty members harassment of students broadened, some students have demanded the removal of Thomas Hubbard, a tenured professor of classics at Austin. Hubbard has studied, taught and written about the phenomenon of pederasty in ancient Greece, and has suggested that age of consent and statutory rape laws in European countries could be models for how U.S. laws address such issues. (Note: This paragraph has been changed to clarify Hubbard's views on age of consent and statutory rape laws.) 

"I have never believed anything more radical than that US law should look at how European states handle the issue," he said in an email. "In most European countries, the age of consent (is) 14 or 15, and police become involved only if the young person him or herself complains or it involves an adult in a position of trust (such as therapists, teachers, or clergy). These countries also have much lower rates of sex offending than the US. My beliefs are part of a broader commitment to criminal justice reform, not any personal enthusiasm for sex with teenagers. I have never in my life been involved with anyone under 18, even when I was under that age myself." 

A paper he published in 2016 analyzed “the utility of these laws for agendas of child protection versus the repressive effects of the laws in privileging parental or state control over adolescents’ sexual self-determination and bodily autonomy.”

His papers have been promoted and distributed by the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, a group that advocates for the legalization of pedophilia. NAMBLA has been dormant in recent years, and Hubbard has said he does not endorse NAMBLA’s radicalism or criminal activity and does not have “personal enthusiasm for sex with teenagers.”

“If people in these groups support me, it may be because I am one of the few academics who is willing to listen to them and learn about their motivations, instead of demonizing them as incurable monsters,” Hubbard wrote in an email. “How can one do scholarship on pederasty or sex offending if one doesn't talk to pederasts and sex offenders?”

Hubbard has assigned students to write papers in which they considered hypothetical cases of rape, or discussed “a real case in which they had knowledge” with names omitted for anonymity, he wrote. Hubbard then asked students to consider the legality or illegality of the scenarios. Dawson said the assignment was unacceptable and invalidated the actual experiences of students who were victims of sexual assault. (Note: This paragraph has been changed to clarify the terms of the assignment.) 

“It doesn’t seem like he would be advocating for pedophiles if he wasn’t one himself,” she said.

Hubbard, 63, has not had any complaints made against him for sexual misconduct, said J. B. Bird, the university's director of media relations. Hubbard has also never been charged with any crime, and considers Fire the Abusers' accusation that he is a pedophile to be defamation, Hubbard said.

The group went to Hubbard's house around 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 9, according to a spokesperson for the Austin Police Department, which is investigating the incident as criminal mischief and attempting to identify protesters who may have been involved. There were also reports of a brick thrown at Hubbard's house and graffiti written, Bird said. Dawson, who was with Fire the Abusers when they stormed Hubbard's house, said the group was not involved in those acts and followed police orders to get off the property.

The university called the attacks directed at Hubbard "unacceptable" and said it would be working to protect him from any harm.

"He has received threats of physical harm and had his home vandalized," Bakre wrote. "Students have the right to contest specific ideas, but threatening anyone’s safety violates the law and university standards of conduct."

Hubbard believes he has been caught in the crossfire between the university and those forcing it to reckon with it sexual misconduct procedures. He said he too has been frustrated with how Austin addresses complaints against faculty members.

“In my case, I am being attacked for ideas, not actions,” Hubbard wrote in the email. “Academic freedom clearly protects ideas, even those that some people dislike.”

Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Project, said Hubbard’s argument for his engagement with child sex offenders is valid and has been used across academia by professors who study the psychology of criminals. While it is reasonable for people to question professors’ associations with fringe organizations such as NAMBLA, it’s also reasonable for academics to disagree about criminal policies or suggest changing the law of consent without fearing punishment, Friedman said.

“There are long-standing debates about the social construction of childhood and innocence in the modern era,” Friedman said. Hubbard’s “views seem to fall within what people should be able to analyze and wrestle with … I don’t think we should be insensitive to students who take issue or may be deeply uncomfortable with this professor and the things that he’s written, but we can’t use that as a measure of whether he should still have a job or be teaching.”

Although the university defends Hubbard's right to academic freedom, it "condemns ideas or world views that exploit or harm individuals," Bakre wrote in the email.

"The study of controversial and even offensive ideas is protected by academic freedom and the First Amendment -- as is the right of others to strongly disagree with and draw attention to those ideas," she added.

While the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct supports Fire the Abusers' concerns about Hubbard, the coalition's efforts are focused on professors who have been disciplined for sexual misconduct and whether the definitions and outcomes of university investigations into these professors is enough, Ashcraft said.

“He falls outside of this range of information we have been advocating for,” Ashcraft said. “We have no publicly disclosable, accessible evidence, so we’ve been leaving him out of the conversation.”

The coalition has opened the doors to a broader discussion about what’s appropriate to discuss in the classroom, which the organizers welcome, Kang said.

“While I have my own personal views on Thomas Hubbard, we are not holding any specific stance on him at this moment,” she said. “The purpose of our cause has been increasing conversation around this issue in general, so I wouldn’t say that it’s taking away from our cause, but I would describe it as a branch coming off of this general desire of talking about student safety on campus and what is said and done on this campus.”

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