- Is it true that faculty and staff who allow or supervise students who travel out of the country on university-sanctioned educational programs have a liability risk in the event that a student is injured, killed, becomes ill, or causes damage to another party?
- Has UT Austin articulated a policy that it will defend a faculty or staff member sued for an event that occurs during international student travel?
If such a risk occurs, does there exist insurance coverage that the UT System could purchase that would provide for a legal defense of the staff member or faculty member, if sued by the party who is harmed, including the student, the student’s family, or a third party harmed by the student’s action?
President Powers explained that the question was prompted by the tragic death of a student in a study abroad program last summer. He said Vice President Patti Ohlendorf and the UT Austin legal department provided an extensive legal analysis of this issue, which the president summarized as follows:
It’s true there is some level of risk associated with faculty and staff involvement in travel abroad programs. As a general rule, faculty and staff members supervising or conducting courses in a study abroad program would not ultimately be personally financially responsible for the sickness, death, or injury of a UT student or third party or for any third party property damage occurring while abroad, provided, and this is important, provided that the faculty or staff member is acting within the scope and course of employment at the time of the occurrence. Specifically, Chapter 104 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code provides that the state will indemnify and defend state employees in legal actions based on an act or omission by the state employee occurring in the course and scope of the person’s employment. So that is the general rule, which does give protection and comfort to faculty members. I, actually, in a previous life, was a litigator in this kind of law. What is within the course and scope of employment is not always an easy thing to ascertain, so, like many legal rules, it’s not absolutely clear-cut. The general rule is there is defense and then indemnity in the case of somebody acting within the scope of employment.
President Powers acknowledged, however, that from his experience as a litigator, the definition of “course and scope of employment is not always an easy thing to ascertain.” He assured faculty that “UT System has both an international insurance policy with a thirty-party provider and a self-funded insurance plan.” He clarified that it would be important to differentiate between the position of personal liability and the payment of the assessed liability in situations where a University employee is subject to personal liability for conduct occurring within the scope and course of employment. He added, it would not be likely that a University employee would be required to satisfy a judgment from his or her personal funds. He cautioned, however, that “neither state law nor UT System’s commercial or self-funded insurance policies will indemnify or defend employee conduct that is willfully or wantonly negligent and/or criminal,” and added that “the University cannot provide any guidance or insight into the laws or legal systems of a foreign country.” Vice President Ohlendorf added that UT Austin would probably still defend a UT employee as long as there was no negligence. President Powers explained that UT’s standard protection is very similar to that of a private company and provides a fair amount of protection.
Professor William Beckner (mathematics) asked President Powers to briefly comment on the recent announcement by the UT Board of Regents that the board would enter an agreement with a consortium, which includes the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to offer online video courses. Professor Beckner also asked about the role of UT Austin in that initiative.
President Powers reported that this consortium of excellent universities currently offers courseware free of charge to anybody, including some certificates. He further explained that Harvard and MIT were running this 501(c)(3) group called edX, which he said was actually motivated by UT Austin and had been very well received. He further explained that the UT Austin course transformation project would grant UT an opportunity to both produce and consume material as an option. The president encouraged faculty members to review content produced at other institutions, such as Carnegie Mellon, as well as courses from our own campus in chemistry, psychology, biology, English, statistics, and others. He described the blended and online courses as being very interactive and oriented toward problem solving. He stated that courses chosen for the project generally were not taught in large lecture halls and involved students working in small groups to solve problems, often with the support of teaching assistants who are seniors in the field.
The president indicated that a professor could decide to offer an online course for free, not for credit, to the general public, as an opportunity completely within the purview of the department and the faculty member. If an institution decided to use such a course for credit through edX, an income stream would have to be worked out to ensure sustainability, which he said had not been imposed yet by the edX agreement, the System, or the campus. Likewise, a UT Austin department could decide that a blended or online course from another institution fulfills a degree requirement. Like any departmental curriculum decision, this would have to be approved by UT Austin’s Faculty Council. President Powers stressed that both importing and exporting courses on edX would be completely within the control of our faculty. He also reiterated that blended courses have existed for some time at UT Austin. The University has developed, for example, “one of the leading innovations on American campuses with our business foundation program,” which allows students in any major to take a number of business courses to familiarize themselves with basic business concepts and to increase their chances to enter the business world upon graduation. He added, however, that this concept might not be appropriate for a student within a business major.
President Powers emphasized that these blended courses are not merely correspondence courses but are “very highly designed, based on interactive educational psychology.” Other universities, who may not have a similar course, might want to adopt one of these courses from UT Austin, thus providing an income stream for our campus. He also noted that these “courses are not cheap to put together.” Cost and incentives for people actually developing the courses, similar to indirect research costs, still have to be worked out, as do issues involving courses that satisfy Texas state breadth requirements at another university.
Professor Alberto Martinez (history, member of the 2012-13 Faculty Advisory Committee on Budgets) inquired about cutbacks in faculty salaries and departmental operating expenses. He asked the president to comment on 2011-12 data that he found indicating that funding of the instructional administration had grown by $33,600,000, while both faculty salaries and departmental operating expenses had decreased by $6,236,000 and $10,692,000, respectively.
President Powers empathetically responded that the administration had not grown at that rate. He said there had been some reorganization and some relocation of existing units and personnel into the administration group. He stated that UT Austin had received a number of grants for the course transformation project, as well as some money from the Available University Fund (AUF), but he emphasized that the administration has grown only minimally, if at all. He offered to provide Professor Martinez with some additional detail after he had time to research the answer to this question.
The president also explained that, while UT Austin has lost about $92 or $96 million for the biennium, faculty salaries have not been cut or reduced. Some faculty members may have left or retired and may have been replaced by a younger person, a lecturer, or not at all, which allowed for the good progress on the University’s student to faculty ratio.