AUSTIN: UT Students Protest Professors Accused of Sexual Misconduct, Administration Responds

Photo: Students cover walls outside of the UT Executive Vice President’s office with messages condemning abusers and sexual predators.

By Dmitri Sans

On October 25, students at the University of Texas at Austin gathered at the office of the Executive Vice President on campus to demand abusive professors be ousted from the school. Registration for classes began October 28. After nearly a week of promising a response, the administration issued a statement Wednesday night that offered no concrete action related to the students’ demands.

The sit-in the week before lasted all day and saw the most participation from women, with multiple speeches given and students covering the walls of the hallway outside the office with paper and posters that condemned abusers and sexual predators. Attendees chanted, “Actions, not words!” and “No excuses for abusers!”

Colin Hutchison and Sahotra Sarkar, two UT professors who have both been investigated for sexual misconduct in the past few years, were specifically targeted by the protest. The organizers led the call for their immediate firing.

Hutchison, an associate professor at the English department, was investigated last summer and found to have made “inappropriate” comments to his students. The allegations against him were not limited to offensive remarks, with some graduate students claiming that his funding recommendations depended on reciprocity to his advances and at least one saying that she had left academia altogether to get away from him.

The multiple women who were interviewed during Hutchison’s investigation said that they were reluctant to make the complaints not only because of how it might damage their own careers but also because they did not want to hurt Hutchison’s wife, another one of his former students who he married in 2015.

After the investigation, Hutchison was removed from the course schedule for Fall 2018 and Spring 2019, but then he quietly returned to teach two undergraduate courses this fall. He is scheduled for one small honors class this Spring.

Sarkar, likewise, was investigated by the University after multiple complaints were filed against him, including asking students to pose for nude photography for money. He has defended this particular allegation by claiming that he is a professional photographer. He was put on paid leave while the investigation was underway in 2016 and was suspended for at least one semester. Like Hutchison, however, he is back to teaching again.

It is easy to conclude that it is the slimy and subtle nature in which these two professors have harassed and preyed on their students that has allowed them to circumvent stronger disciplinary measures, but the University has a history of protecting abusers, including professors.

In 2018, the now-defunct Revolutionary Student Front (RSF) at UT-Austin took action against professor Richard Morrisett after his acts of domestic violence came to light. He had plead guilty to felony charges which included strangling his wife in February 2017, but the University continued to employ him. The details of his case were not disclosed until an investigative report was published in early 2018.

Beset by the bold propaganda actions of the youth who wouldn’t let him hide in peace, Morrisett committed suicide in April 2018 rather than face any further accountability for his crimes. A now famous action taken during that time dyed the UT fountain red, with the slogan spray-painted nearby, “This is the blood of survivors that UT ignores.”

At the sit-in last Friday, the anger of the women present showed that the conditions at UT which had provoked the fountain action remain unchanged. From outright assault to inappropriate propositions, the spectrum of abuse is safeguarded by the UT administration.

Efforts of administration officials to create a dialogue with the protest were met with indignation. Students grilled Title IX coordinator Adriana Alicea-Rodriguez as to why these professors still had jobs, why students were not made aware of their past investigations, and why UT continues to protect abusers. Alicea-Rodriguez could only respond with the non-answer that she “would look into it.” The Title IX program which Alicea-Rodriguez reviews for the university is a US federal law that purports to address sexual discrimination and harassment in educational institutions.

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Adriana Alicea-Rodriguez pleading with angry students

Members of Popular Women’s Movement-Movimiento Femenino Popular (PWM) made speeches encouraging those at the sit-in to continue the campaign against abusers beyond this protest and outside the bounds of bourgeois process. PWM has been leading its own local campaigns against the abusers who fill the ranks at the Austin Police Department, in particular Jason Dusterhoft and Dustin Lee.

“Women are tired of endless conversations where nothing is done. It isn’t enough to just believe us. People need to step up and actually take action with us,” the PWM speaker said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t serve [UT’s] interest to fire prestigious professors who engage in misconduct. Having a report sent to students about guilty professors is not enough! Having them taken off the course schedule is not enough! They need to get the hell off campus!”

Following the protest, the Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, contacted the administration asking for their response to the situation, and received a message stating, “We are in the midst of developing a response that will be shared over the next few days via an editorial in The Daily Texan.”

Spencer Buckner, editor-in-chief of the Daily Texan, responded with his own editorial asserting that he would not run any response from the administration. He wrote, “I can’t imagine why the University would want to use the Texan, which only reaches a fraction of the student body, when they could reach every student directly via email.”

On the evening of October 30, UT executive vice president Maurie McInnis published a letter through the school’s news page, forgoing the more direct channel of a campus-wide email. In it, she announced the school will be bringing in an “outside expert” to review UT’s handling of harassment claims, while evading the question of publishing abuser’s names or firing abusive professors.

McInnis’s letter does not mention Hutchison or Sarkar by name and ends by putting the onus on students, telling them, “to take action, we need you to report misconduct.” UT expects students to act while avoiding the key action which students have demanded, which is to fire the professors and show they will protect students and other faculty in concrete ways.

While the young organizers are learning that the bourgeois administration will try and pacify them with stalling tactics and excuses, some are taking action on their own terms, with flyers of Hutchison and Sarkar appearing around campus sharing information about their histories of sexual misconduct. This propaganda hints at a longer campaign beyond the sit-in, but in order for this effort to make lasting gains, the tactics and goals of the students must move beyond what is permitted by the administration.