Relationship policy needs transparency

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Bev Kearney, former UT women’s track and field head coach, has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Texas Workforce Commission discrimination charge against the University. Kearney, the most successful coach in UT athletics history, was the first African-American to serve as a head coach at UT. After admitting to having “an intimate consensual relationship” with a female student-athlete on her team in 2002, she resigned on Jan. 5, as the University was preparing to begin her termination process.

Although the University appears to have disciplined Kearney in a manner consistent with its own policy, the allegations highlight a lack of transparency in the University’s handling of student-staff relationships.

Kearney’s attorney, Derek Howard, told the Austin American-Statesman that the complaint will reference UT football’s co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, a white male who admitted to an inappropriate consensual relationship with a female student trainer in 2009. Applewhite was discovered to have disclosed his relationship promptly and had his salary frozen as a result, after an open records request by the Texan brought UT Athletics documentation to light.

Howard said he filed the gender and race discrimination complaint on Kearney’s behalf Tuesday March 12. The TWC does not recognize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a type of employment discrimination. The EEOC and TWC will have 180 days to investigate the allegations, after which time Howard said he will file a lawsuit against the University, regardless of any decisions reached by the agencies. The University, pursuant to its Handbook of Operating Procedures’ nondiscrimination policy, does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Race, gender and sexual orientation are not the only significant differences between the facts of the Kearney and Applewhite cases. Whereas Applewhite quickly informed his supervisor of his “inappropriate conduct,” Kearney failed to disclose her relationship, which under University policy left her “subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

In January, Howard told the Texan that the University doesn’t cite Kearney’s “failure to report the relationship as the reason for firing her.” Instead, Howard said, “It’s because she had the relationship, period.” Indeed, Patti Ohlendorf, UT’s vice president for legal affairs, cited a rationale absent from the University’s Handbook of Operating Procedures for Kearney’s discipline: “In the case of a head coach and a student-athlete on his or her team, the University’s position is that that cannot be condoned in any event.”

Howard claims to know of at least 10 other instances of inappropriate relationships at UT. It remains to be seen whether Kearney was a victim of workplace discrimination. We hope that isn’t the case. But, allegations of discrimination aside, the University’s implementation of its policy is inadequate at best. The University risks the appearance of discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement if its policy is not made more transparent and realistic. Consensual student-staff relationships, a reality on our campus, have consequences too far-reaching to be dealt with haphazardly.