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Marsha Miller, University of Texas at Austin

Student activists pushing for the University of Texas at Austin to fire professors found to have committed sexual misconduct and publicly disclose their disciplinary records celebrated a victory Monday when university President Greg Fenves agreed to make termination a default punishment for such behavior.

Faculty and staff members found guilty of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking or interpersonal violence after a “thorough investigation” will be presumptively separated from the university, Fenves said in a letter to the campus. The goal is to have the new policy in effect by the end of the semester, said Scott Schneider, a partner at Husch Blackwell, the law firm that was hired by the university to advise administrators and which recommended the policy changes.

Schneider said there will be some exceptions to the policy. A faculty or staff member who engaged in sexual misconduct would be allowed to remain employed if the victim of their actions expressed that they do not want to “ruin this person’s life,” Schneider said.

Husch Blackwell recommended that any staff or faculty member retained by the university should be listed in a report that includes their name, misconduct committed and the “mitigating factors” preventing their termination, according to the firm’s report. The regularity of the report has not yet been determined, said Gary Susswein, chief communications officer.

Although Fenves said in his letter that the reporting process would preserve "the privacy of the survivors," Schneider said doing so might be difficult while providing such a list. He's also concerned it could reduce misconduct reporting, because unique public records laws in Texas allow for disclosure of university personnel records.

“I worry from the meetings we’ve had with claimants, survivors … people in the community are going to be able to find out who these people are,” Schneider said. “There’s been some retraumatization associated with that. I’m not a huge fan of providing this information. I want to be using it on a limited basis.”

The recommendations met the “big” demands of the Coalition Against Sexual Misconduct, or CASM, a student-led group that advocated for policy changes and led several demonstrations on campus, said Tasnim Islam, a spokesperson for CASM and a member of the university’s Misconduct Working Group. UT Austin will be the first university in the U.S. to publish the names of faculty and staff members disciplined for sexual misconduct, CASM wrote in a Facebook post.

“It’s a lot of complicated emotions, but when I first saw that, I almost had tears of joy,” Islam said. “It felt so good to know all of our hard work was worth it. A lot of the recommendations were very similar and reflected the same values that the student list of demands mentioned.”

Islam was frustrated that Fenves did not explicitly mention the work of CASM or other student activists who have been pushing for policy changes for several years. "It’s incredible and all because of student activists," she said.

Islam said Fenves did not address some specific changes that CASM wanted. The changes include speeding up the process for reports made to UT Austin’s Title IX office, which handles complaints of sexual misconduct.

Husch Blackwell’s recommendations, which Fenves agreed to in full, did identify “anecdotal information from various stakeholders that the resolution of sex discrimination claims took an unreasonably long period of time” and recommended the university adopt “a reasonable and presumptively appropriate timeline” to resolve claims.

Some victims had shared similar anecdotes during an emotional listening forum organized by CASM on Jan. 27, where students accused Fenves, Provost Maurie McInnis and Soncia Reagins-Lilly, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, of not caring about their safety in the classroom. After the forum, Fenves requested the original timeline set by the working group and Husch Blackwell to deliver recommendations be accelerated by two weeks, Susswein said. The firm held meetings with 150 stakeholders -- students, survivors, accused and disciplined faculty members, and administrators -- over the course of the last month, he said.

Hush Blackwell also recommended the university mandate sexual misconduct awareness and prevention training for all faculty and staff, according to the report. It also suggested a formalized alternative resolution process for employees guilty of lower-level sex discrimination offenses, which would allow for victims and respondents to participate in restorative justice if they both agree, and reintegrate employees into campus after being disciplined.

Fenves was unequivocal about the new standard being embraced by the university. The university will now start a formal institutional review process for implementing the policies. It's unclear how long it will take until the changes go into effect, Schneider said.

“Sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and interpersonal violence will not be accepted at the University of Texas at Austin,” Fenves’s statement said. “If a faculty or staff member commits these acts, the consequences will be clear.”

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