Last October, Elizabeth Cullingford, chair of the English department, called a town hall for English graduate students after sexual harassment allegations against English associate professor Coleman Hutchison became public. In a piece published in the Arkansas International in October, Jenn Shapland, a former student of Hutchison, detailed a relationship with Hutchison — beginning when he first pursued her and ending when she left UT to get away from a situation that had become uncomfortable.
While Hutchison was not named in the Arkansas International story, his identity was thinly veiled, and many in the English department understood who Shapland had written about. The article circulated throughout the department, pushing Cullingford to call the meeting.
Around this time, the Office for Inclusion and Equity began investigating claims of sexual harassment against Hutchison.
On June 5 of this year, Cullingford sent an email to English graduate students announcing the conclusion of the investigation. She wrote that “Professor Hutchison was cleared of accusations of sexual harassment. However, the investigators found sufficient evidence that he violated University policy by not reporting a consensual relationship, and by making some inappropriate comments to graduate students.”
We don’t know why these “inappropriate comments” did not rise to the University’s definition of sexual harassment. We do know that inappropriate comments from a professor create an intimidating situation where a power imbalance already exists.
Professors have immense control over the grades and careers of their students, and inappropriate comments at best introduce discomfort and at worst impede a student’s ability to engage with their community. In a profession where close relationships with your superiors are vital to student success, stepping beyond the bounds of professional conduct can have far-reaching effects. There shouldn’t be a place for this conduct at UT.
Yet, with regard to Hutchison’s future at the University, Cullingford said, “Although he will be returning to campus in the fall, Professor Hutchison will not be teaching graduate classes, nor taking up administrative positions.”
Instead, he will be teaching undergraduate students. Specifically, two undergraduate English seminar-style classes — E 342S and E 349S.
The University has not explained its decision to remove Hutchison from graduate work, and Cullingford declined to speak with The Daily Texan on the subject.
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, 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.
The University’s handling of Hutchison’s case leads us to question its commitment to protecting UT students. Simply shuffling him from one age group to another assigns a trial-by-error mentality to a situation where second chances often come at the mercy of others.
In moving Hutchison to undergraduates, the University has played into a broader tendency to prioritize professors and their privacy. Whether trying to quell the open aggression of graduate students or simply hoping that Hutchison won’t pursue undergraduates, the University has regardless placed its image over its students.
Although UT likes to paint itself as a leader in the fight against sexual misconduct, its actions undermine its rhetoric. When professors who secretly pursue relationships with their students and make “inappropriate comments” toward them are given little more than a slap on the wrist, the University loses an opportunity to send a message that this behavior will not be tolerated.
Our ongoing national conversation on sexual assault and gender inequity has finally deemed these situations inexcusable. Students recognize it’s a problem, and it’s time UT does, too.
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