Two mirror images of pharmacy professor Richard Morrisett are currently emblazoned on the Austin American-Statesman’s website. On the left sits a mugshot from Travis County, and on the right, a staff photo from UT.
University police arrested Morrisett in July 2016 on multiple violations of a protective order and incidents of family violence, according to the Statesman. After Morrisett was placed on paid leave in August 2016, an internal report recommended that Morrisett’s staff photo remain on UT’s website and that he remain a tenured, active professor. Morrisett later pleaded guilty to a felony charge of strangling his girlfriend until she “saw stars.”
Two University stances collide in the Morrisett case. The University’s common-sense prohibition on domestic violence was less persuasive than its belief that Morrisett’s criminal behavior is not relevant to his professional responsibilities. UT restricted knowledge about the investigation to senior administrators until the Statesman exposed it — even Morrisett’s current students were unaware of the violent offender who retained the privilege of lecturing and holding office hours.
It is precisely the failure to notify the community that makes this case so egregious.
In a recent statement, Dean Lynn Crimson, of the College of Pharmacy, said UT is working to figure out the best way “to notify the University community about these issues in the future.” Morrisett’s students only learned about the investigation and his confession after an external news organization reported on his crimes. But students don’t know what other revelations could be awaiting a Statesmen investigation. UT’s failure to inform the students — to protect the students — is shameful.
Just as students’ transgressions are monitored and acted upon, students have a right to know when a professor is being investigated for, or has been found guilty of, a violent crime or of violating University policy.
We have mass text alerts for crimes on or near campus. We have transcript flags for students found guilty of misconduct. We have a list of organizations that have been investigated or repudiated for hazing. But we have no way of informing students about the misdeeds of their instructors. The University has demonstrated the capacity for timely notification in student affairs, so introducing a system for alerting — or at least informing — students of faculty misconduct should not be a stretch. Such a notification system is in the University’s best interest — a headline and a mugshot plastered in newspapers don’t do much for credibility.
When Morrisett returned to work in August, UT quietly lost the right to claim the moral high ground on issues of sexual misconduct. If the University wants to regain the trust of its students, it must institute — and enforce — a policy of openness and honesty. Students deserve to know who is teaching them, and the University cannot afford to act dishonestly.