AUSTIN: Sexual Misconduct Town Hall Serves to Pacify UT Students, Justify Administration Inaction

Photo: Students interrupt University of Texas administrators during their town hall meeting on professor sexual misconduct with a banner reading “UT is Complicit, Fire the Abusers”

By Ann Evans

Last night, the University of Texas at Austin (UT) held a student town hall to address concerns regarding the sexual misconduct of professors who remain on staff and the administration’s failure to protect students. The Misconduct Working Group organized the event with a panel that included UT President Gregory Fenves, Vice President Maurie McInnis, and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lily. Despite months of turbulent protests, the town hall went mostly as planned by the administration and the collaborationist working group.

Over the past few months, revelations of UT administration retaining professors found guilty of sexual misconduct on staff have sparked a movement of students, primarily women, confronting the administration and demanding that these abusers be fired. This began with a series of sit-ins at administration offices, and escalated with a series of militant and confrontational actions led by students in the classrooms and homes of predatory, backwards professors.

The Misconduct Working Group was UT’s bureaucratic answer to this surge of student organizing. In addition to its role of hosting the town hall, the group has also been used to target militant student and community activists for repression, while attempting to isolate and placate more passive protesters whom the administration can trap in their bureaucratic processes. Earlier this month, UT finally released a list of faculty and staff with sexual misconduct violations, after initially trying to withhold their names, citing fear for the safety of the professors and staff.

The town hall consisted of a combination of pre-submitted, online, and spontaneous questions in which the panel had three minutes to answer each one. Most of the questions revolved around the administration’s lack of action in holding abusive professors accountable.

Unsurprisingly, the administration used empty promises and deception in an attempt to subdue the anger of those present. In a response to a female student saying that the administration of UT was failing students, Provost McInnis responded “we hear that you think that we failed you,” evading the question to avoid acknowledging that the administration has in fact failed to keep students safe from predatory professors.

Throughout the entire event the panel of UT officials focused on the importance of creating “safe spaces” that would encourage students to reassert their trust in the policies and procedures of the administration. A ‘safe space’ is a postmodernist concept that has no real material basis, and the empty phrase was used in hands of the administration to offer the student body nothing more than bureaucratic traps while glossing over the true danger posed by predatory professors.

Women in the audience tried to appeal to the compassion of the panelists and shared their very emotional experiences of sexual assault and Title IX cases. Ultimately, this did not sway the administration into action as they materially have no interest in standing by students over their higher-tier faculty. Fenves continuously cited the school’s own processes as an excuse to not make any promises besides opportunities for more meetings and more talking.

Students hold up signs with ‘No’ handed out by the Misconduct Working Group to enforce silence.

The event was structured in such a way that it allowed the panelists to maintain almost complete control of the discussion. The students within the Misconduct Working Group fell for this manipulation tactic by prompting students to hold up signs printed with a large “No” when they disagreed with something administrators said, serving to further encourage their silence.

Some students, however, were able to make use of candid questions to expose and confront the administration’s complete lack of regard for student safety. Many students asked what reason there was to compromise student safety by not firing abusive professors, to which the panelists always responded with avoidance.

One student brought up the fact that, just the day before, Fenves had sent an email to the entire student body that UT would be increasing the number of officers and patrols by the UT Police Department. She said that “cops are not here to protect us, they are here to protect y’all.”

Another student quickly followed up by noting that the Misconduct Working Group had asked for no police presence but the administration had made a supposedly ‘last minute’ decision without them to have cops present at the event. Students correctly identified that the purpose of the police was to assist the administration in the repression of students and activists. The Misconduct Working Group’s inability to enforce this promise of no police presence only shows their subservience to the administration.

As one student’s emotional recount of sexual violence trailed off and Fenves was about to speak, a group of five students, who would later state to be with the group ‘Fire the Abusers,’ entered holding a banner that read “UT is Complicit, Fire the Abusers” and chanting “Hey Fenves, you can’t hide, we can see with whom you side!” But these students were unable to unite with the crowd and ended their disruption shortly after beginning.

On social media soon after, the twitter account for Fire the Abusers issued an apology and statement in response to claims that they had cut off the student speaker with their disruption. While they may have made some tactical errors, other students can learn from their refusal to engage in the administration’s phony dialogue. Other than the short disruption, the entire event was under the strict control of the bourgeois administration, backed by the police hovering both inside and outside the building.

Through sharp questioning, many students at the event were able to expose aspects of the antagonism between the administration and students in dealing with abusers and safety on campus. However, because of a lack of unified and militant action, the administration was allowed to further pacify and divert student anger, giving themselves further cover to continue repressing the youth’s rebellion against the old society that creates and protects abusers.