Is UT Harboring a Domestic Abuser?

Students, organizations calling for Richard Morrisett’s job

Richard Morrisett
Richard Morrisett

Last week, red graffiti scrawled on UT's Pharmacy Building targeted school administrators' decision not to take long-term punitive action against a professor who pleaded guilty to strangling his girlfriend. "UT harbors abusers," read one message. "Careful! UT Keeps Abusers on Staff!" read another. The graffiti, currently under university investigation, has renewed calls to sanction Richard Morrisett and question UT's failure to remove him from his position.

Morrisett, a 57-year-old tenured UT College of Pharmacy professor, received a family violence assault charge for strangling and pushing his former girlfriend in 2016. He subsequently violated an emergency protective order and two months later sent his girlfriend to the hospital with more injuries. Arrested on charges of continuous family violence and repeated violation of a protective order, Morrisett pleaded guilty to the first incident, striking an agreement with the District Attorney's Office to avoid up to 30 years of prison in exchange for four years of community supervision, 100 hours of community service, attendance at an avoiding family violence class, and no contact with the victim. (Morrisett did not return requests for comment.)

Instead of firing Morrisett, UT officials placed him on paid administrative leave for 18 days while they investigated the incident. That review included interviews with close colleagues to examine whether his actions posed a danger to others on campus, and whether there was a relationship between his criminal behavior and professional responsibilities. Despite the fact the university's Handbook of Operating Procedures identifies domestic violence, physical assault, and dating violence as "prohibited conduct" that will not be tolerated, UT concluded Morrisett posed no danger and allowed him to return to teaching and lab work. UT spokesperson J.B. Bird emailed to me that the school believes Morrisett is "being punished by the criminal justice system.

"The university is monitoring him during probation to make sure he meets all the conditions and is not accused of other criminal behavior." Pressed on a claim that Morrisett also violated a university policy requiring employees to notify a supervisor of criminal charges but was not reprimanded for it, Bird said the university takes action on the failure to report if it believes someone "willfully hid something" or knew of the requirement and did not report.

While UT's handbook contains a no-tolerance policy for domestic violence, the school weighed the fact the abuse occurred off-campus in deciding whether the incident had a "substantial connection to the university." However, community criticism of that policy has led UT President Greg Fenves to order an administrative review. It's time to make these policies "clearer and stronger," Fenves wrote in statement released Jan. 26. "Violent action by any member of the university community is unacceptable. This episode shows we need to explicitly define conduct that is subject to discipline, including possible termination, regardless of whether it occurs on or off-campus." Fenves also called for enforcing the requirement that employees report any arrests to their supervisor. Policy recommendations are expected to be released by the end of March, Bird said.

In a time of heightened attention and criticism toward the ways major institutions, including universities, fall complicit to employee sexual assault and abuse by not taking swift and serious action, parents and students are looking forward to stronger action by UT. Dozens of students protested on the UT Tower steps on Feb. 13 to condemn Morrisett and UT for "supporting abusers."

"I hope the policy review will not just result in recommendations but actual consequences for professor Morrisett," said Joell McNew, vice president of SafeHorns, a campus organization created by the parents of UT students. "We definitely don't advocate for vandalism, but frustrated and angry students have been asking, 'What's it going to take for UT to take action?' and we don't have an answer for them. I think they understand whoever [sprayed the graffiti] was trying get the university's attention."

Bird says the university is currently not reconsidering Morrisett's status.

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