UT Policy Change Coincides With Professor’s Sudden Death

University more likely to punish employees who commit criminal acts off campus

Richard Morrisett
Richard Morrisett

Last Thursday, shortly following a new University of Texas policy change instigated in part by his actions, UT College of Pharmacy professor Richard Morrisett was found dead in his South Austin home. The cause of death has yet to be determined by the Travis County Medical Examiner, but no evidence of foul play is suspected, says Captain Jonathan Ede, a spokesperson for the Travis County Sheriff's Office, and a toxicology report could take weeks. Morrisett's body was discovered during a welfare check by police prompted by the university after the professor missed a meeting. (Inquiries to the Medical Examiner are pending.)

The 57-year-old tenured professor had pleaded guilty in 2016 to strangling his former girlfriend and violated his restraining order later that year, sending her to the hospital with injuries ("Is UT Harboring a Domestic Abuser?," Feb. 16). Morrisett avoided jail time for his domestic violence charge by striking a deal with the Travis County District Attorney's Office that included community service. But the school chose not to fire or even severely discipline the professor, concluding that Morrisett was not a threat to university surroundings, and allowed him to return to teaching and lab work following a brief stint of paid administrative leave, which led to recent student protests and acts of vandalism on campus.

In a statement issued on Friday, UT President Greg Fenves called Morrisett's death a tragedy. "We support his family and loved ones as they grieve during this time. We recognize these are difficult times on campus and the university will offer all the support we can to students, faculty and staff members." College of Pharmacy Dean M. Lynn Crismon offered contact information for grief counseling to students, saying her "heart goes out to his family and loved ones." However, not everyone provided sympathy: The Revolu­tion­ary Student Front, whose red sickle and hammer emblem appeared alongside the recent vandalism, advocated to mourn only the victim. "The world is better off, if only marginally, for having one less abusive, dangerous man breathing in it," the group wrote in a lengthy Facebook post.

The uproar over Morrisett's case pushed UT to update its policies regarding employee criminal conduct. Last Thursday, Fenves announced that the university will now be open to disciplining employees who commit criminal acts even if school officials determine the person does not pose a threat to campus safety and security or other campus operations. The more stringent policy, the result of a two-month committee review, also mandates strict enforcement of a rule requiring employees to report any arrests to their supervisor (which Morrisett did not do). Employees will be required to disclose the final disposition of any criminal case they're involved in, in addition to the existing disclosure requirements.

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