A suicide at the University of Texas Reveals Dark Side of #MeToo Movement
Before killing himself with a drug intended for rapid and painless animal euthanasia, Richard A. Morrisett had endured a nightmare at the University of Texas in Austin. The 57-year-old tenured professor of pharmacology and toxicology was once a rising star in the College of Pharmacy – a man regarded as a first-rate research scientist and teacher during his 21 years at the state's flagship university. Morrisett's research offered new insights into alcohol-related brain disorders and alcoholism – an arcane area of research among neuroscientists. Some colleagues called him “brilliant.”
Morrisett's career, however, was destroyed by a single newspaper article. Published by the Austin American-Statesman, a metropolitan daily, the article dredged up an ugly episode from Morrisett's past – a domestic violence incident involving his girlfriend at the time. It was the sort of inexcusable incident that, sadly, the police and courts handle all the time. There were no serious injuries; it hadn't even merited a headline when it occurred on May 28, 2016. Morrisett, in a plea deal, pleaded guilty to a 3rd degree felony. He was sentenced to four years of probation, called community supervision in Texas, and ordered to receive counseling, take a class on avoiding family violence, and perform 100 hours of community service. Morrisett had thought he was moving on with his life. He had accepted responsibility for his actions and, moreover, had put an apparently volatile and dysfunctional relationship behind him.
Then, more than a year and a half after the incident, a Statesman reporter contacted Morrisett about the domestic violence case. On his lawyer's advice, Morrisett declined to comment. And not long after that, on Thursday, January 25, his nightmare began: He woke up to see a banner headline across the Statesman's front page: “UT declined to sanction professor who pleaded guilty to violent felony.” The incident had suddenly become timely – tied as it was to the #MeToo movement that, starting one year ago with Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, has since targeted and disgraced a number of prominent or famous men for being sexual predators and abusers.
Until the Statesman's article, only a handful of people knew about the incident, mainly in the criminal-justice system and at the University of Texas. But the #MeToo movement changed all that; or as the Statesman explained: “The case comes to light at a time of heightened concern at colleges and universities, and more broadly across American society, about sexual assault and interpersonal violence.”
The Statesman's article set off a media feeding frenzy and campus uproar. Overnight, Morrisett became Public Enemy No. 1. Enraged that a domestic violence abuser was in their midst, many students staged peaceful anti-Morrisett protests, chanting and marching while shadowed by campus police. Radical leftist students, however, went on a rampage. One night, students apparently affiliated with the Revolutionary Student Front, a communist group, stormed the College of Pharmacy like the blood-thirsty mob that stormed the Bastille. They spray painted the building's front stone facade with red paint reading: “UT harbors abusers.” Nearby on the sidewalk, they wrote: “Watch your back, Richard.” And Morrisett's office door was spray painted: “Get out Morrisett or else!” The graffiti was signed with hammer and sickle symbols, and later posted on the website of the local Revolutionary Student Front.
Banished from the campus to satisfy the mob and prevent disruptions, Morrisett killed himself approximately 65 days after the Statesman's article was published. Shortly before his suicide, he and university officials were discussing the possibility of his taking an extended leave, without pay, from his $169,892 per-year position (though university officials adamantly deny he was being terminated or had violated university regulations then in effect). He had been “managing” his laboratory from off-campus; other professors were teaching his classes.
It wasn't just campus radicals who were causing disruptions. Some pharmacy students said they felt uncomfortable taking classes from Morrisett, whose courses were prerequisites. Parents' groups also expressed concern about having a “violent felon” on campus. It was an untenable situation for university officials who were unable (or unwilling) to face down the campus mob and calm outraged students. Eventually, they decided that Morrisett had to go. It was an about face from their original decision on how to handle Morrisett: let the criminal-justice system handle things, and have Morrisett keep university officials apprised of his criminal case, which officials say he had done.
The Statesman and other media outlets, on the other hand, put forth a singular theme: Morrisett should have been sanctioned by the university or fired for his off-campus conduct.
The pharmacy college's dean, M. Lynn Crismon, had anticipated the coming storm. On the eve of the Statesman's article, he sent a lengthy email to the College of Pharmacy community, stressing that a comprehensive investigation had concluded Morrisett's legal troubles were unrelated to his professional life on campus. “We took Dr. Morrisett’s criminal behavior very seriously and investigated it immediately, assessing whether his actions would pose a threat to our community,” he wrote. His letter was a well-stated appeal to reason and decency. It fell on deaf ears.
#MeToo and McCarthyism
Morrisett's suicide was the first time a media outlet riding on the #MeToo bandwagon veered into troubling new territory – targeting an ordinary man like Morrisett instead of the #MeToo movement's usual high-profile villains. Strangely, not a single news outlet has reported on Morrisett's suicide, even though a media firestorm made him a reviled public figure. It's not as if his suicide is a secret. On the contrary, the cause of Morrisett's death can be readily obtained from the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office. Why have the Statesman and other media outlets ignored his suicide?
“They're embarrassed,” Morrisett's lawyer, E.G. Morris, said during a phone interview. He added, “Just because you have a particular piece of information, doesn't mean you should publish it.”
The #MeToo movement had started out as good entertainment. Many people felt a delicious sense of schadenfreude when Harvey Weinstein was outed as serial sexual abuser. Morrisett, however, was no Harvey Weinstein. On the contrary, he was an ordinary man whose personnel files contain no mention of inappropriate conduct with colleagues or students. His final tortured weeks recall how ordinary Americans in the 1950s became victims of McCarthyism. Like #MeToo, the nightmare of McCarthyism had started out with good intentions: an earnest hunt during the Cold War for the real communists and Soviet agents in the government and sensitive positions. It ended in a witch-hunt that destroyed innocent lives and even triggered suicides.
Human beings are infinitely complex. It is risky to judge them too quickly. But such nuances were lost on the news media and campus mob in the final weeks of Morrisett's life. Those who knew him well were appalled at how he was vilified. During a phone interview, his former wife of 12 years said: “He was very passionate about this work, and he could have a temper at times, but nothing that was violent.” She had worked in Morrisett's laboratory and is now an administrator at another university. Over the years, she has kept in touch with former colleagues at the University of Texas.
“I'm disappointed that the university didn't do more to protect him," she said. She asked not to be named.
In the weeks before his suicide, Morrisett learned who his real friends were at the College of Pharmacy. Some apparently drifted away. One who didn't, a tenured professor, reacted with silence when he recently answered his office phone and was asked by a caller about Richard Morrisett. After a long moment of silence, he responded in a wavering voice: “I'm having an emotional reaction.” He went on to say: “He was a very close friend of mine, and I just want to make sure his memory is honored. There are people who do not want to do that, and in fact want to do the opposite. I can't contribute in any way to anything that will lead to further controversy or further smearing in an article over which I have no control.”
The professor had a point, especially in respect to the media frenzy and campus mob. They enjoyed a symbiotic relationship – one feeding off the other. The Statesman and other media outlets, for instance, covered every anti-Morrisett protest – and even egged them on. The Statesman's editors revealed much about their mindset when they plastered a photo across their front page of the vile anti-Morrisett graffiti at the College of Pharmacy. The photo, however, wasn't taken by a Statesman photographer (who no doubt had arrived at the scene as the graffiti was being scrubbed away). Instead, the paper used a photo provided by the Revolutionary Student Front – a fact it unashamedly made clear with a photo credit: “Photo: Courtesy of the Revolutionary Student Front - Austin.” Some alert readers must have done a double take, and wondered: Would the Statesman have run a photo of a cross-burning with a comparable photo credit: “Photo: Courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan”?
Left-wing students also blitzed the campus with anti-Morrisett flyers slapped onto light polls, walls, and other high-visibility spots. Resembling wanted posters, the flyers listed Morrisett's personal information: his home address, and the phone numbers of his office, home, and cell phone. The flyers urged students to “Call Richard Morrisett and tell him to get the hell out now!” They were signed with hammer and sickle symbols.
“Our goal is to make him feel unsafe on campus,” stated the Revolutionary Student Front in a social media post, according to campus police. None of the mayhem, intimidation, or public vandalism apparently resulted in any arrests by the campus police – though officers dutifully wrote up lengthy reports about each incident.
It must have been a humbling experience for Morrisett, a proud man at the top of his game. Until the domestic violence charges, he had apparently never had a brush with the law; and his record at the University of Texas was exemplary, both his teaching and research, according to a review of his personnel records and evaluations – part of a trove of documents obtained through an open-records request for this article. In one review not long ago, the pharmacy college's dean, M. Lynn Crismon, wrote: “Excellent extramural grant productivity. Your collaborative research productivity appears to be highly productive. Good service to the College as well as in assisting Dell Medical School with its curriculum development.” And Crismon noted elsewhere that Morrisett had improved his teaching effectiveness after some minor issues mentioned in anonymous student reviews – a conclusion echoed in a peer review in which colleagues rated Morrisett's teaching performance as “very good” to “excellent” in various areas.
Yet none of the forgoing mattered to the campus mob. All it knew about Morrisett was what it read in newspaper headlines – and on that basis he was quickly convicted in the Kangaroo Court of public opinion. He was portrayed as a monster.
How to explain all the hate? For one thing, Morrisett was a symbol of all they hated. Indeed, after an anti-Morrisett graffiti incident on International Woman's day, March 8, the Revolutionary Student Front explained their fury, writing in a twitter post that they'd defaced a campus World War 1 memorial because “we must stress the necessity of organizing women for revolutionary violence against the capitalist institutions that uphold patriarchy & protect abusers like Richard Morrisett.” They dyed the tranquil waters of the memorial's fountain red, and spray painted a memorial wall: “This is the blood of survivors that UT ignores,” said the statement that was signed with a hammer and sickle symbol. Such vandalism and intimidation were the left-wing version of McCarthyism, only worse.
There was some selective outrage gong on here. Consider the odd case of a convicted murderer who recently ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Austin City Council – even though he couldn't as a convicted felon legally hold such a position. But the city clerk, with the blessing of the Statesman' editorial page, nevertheless gave a green light to Lewis Conway Jr. to run for office as a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist. The only person objecting to Conway's candidacy was the motherof the man whom he stabbed to death. Oh, and one other thing about Conway: He is black and a Muslim. As such, he was not a worthy target for the news media, student activists, and left-wing radicals who are allowed to run wild on campus thanks to seemingly feckless university administrators.
Morrisett's lawyer, E.G. Morris, seemed to take a deep breath, betrayed a hint of anger, when Morrisett's suicide was mentioned during a brief phone interview. He was unaware until then of how his client had died, so his reaction was understandable. Suicides, a dark side of human nature, provoke a variety of gut-wrenching responses: quilt, anger, confusion, shame. Citing attorney-client privilege, Morris declined to discuss substantive details of his former client's case.
The Statesman's article noted that Morrisett was charged with choking his 44-year-old girlfriend until she “saw stars.” Morrisett had wanted her out of his house, according to the police report, and he briefly pinned her to the bed with one hand over her throat. “I just choked you, is that not enough?” he said, according to a deputy's affidavit. Meeting deputies in his driveway, Morrisett even asked them how to remove his girlfriend, and upon further investigation deputies observed evidence of abuse from red marks on her neck, upper lip, and front shoulder. The two apparently had a volatile relationship, according to Morrisett's ex-wife. “It's just hearsay, but I heard that she may have been as abusive to him as he was to her.”
Morrisett was charged with family violence with strangulation. A restraining order prohibited him from having further contact with his girlfriend – and yet she continued living with him at his Austin home. Less than two months later, the Statesman noted, she visited a local hospital complaining of neck and lower back pain. She subsequently told a police officer that Morrisett, after learning a grand jury had indicted him in the earlier assault case, become enraged, grabbed her arms, and threw her to the ground, the Statesman reported. Why did she continue living with Morrisett? In an affidavit, a deputy quoted her as saying she was afraid to have the protective order enforced. Morrisett faced additional charges.
Did alcohol play a role in the domestic violence incidents? Court records don't say. But Morrisett was a drinker despite being a nationally recognized expert on alcohol use (who also provided expert testimony in legal cases, including to his own lawyer). His ex-wife said they both drank socially during their leisure hours, sometimes to excessive levels. They were divorced eight years ago. Interestingly, the autopsy report dated September 19, 2018, noted that Morrisett's “heart was moderately enlarged, which can be seen in hypertension (high-blood pressure) and chronic alcohol use.” Asked about alcoholism, Morrisett's ex-wife said: "I don't believe that he felt he had a problem with alcoholism. He was able to control his drinking, but we both drank to excess at times. I could say that some of the spats we had were alcohol fueled on his part and my part.”
Early last March, Morrisett's nightmare went from bad to worse. The pharmacy college's dean sent him an email stating that the provost's office expected him to attend an upcoming meeting “with a specific plan regarding what you intend to do after this academic year ends on May 31, 2018. Given the current situation, it is not feasible for you to remain on campus, and it is important that your plan address this fact.” The letter was among the trove of information obtained through an open-records request.
Asked about the letter, J.B. Bird, a university spokesman familiar with the thinking of the provost's office and pharmacy college's dean, stressed that Morrisett was “not being terminated” – though there were indeed discussions about his taking time off without pay; finding a position elsewhere for a while; or perhaps opting for early retirement. Morrisett would nevertheless retain his status as a “tenured professor,” said Bird.
Morrisett started planning his suicide the day after his last meeting, on March 29, with university officials. During that meeting, those officials sensed Morrisett was in a “depressed state,” Bird said. Their impression was correct. The next day, Morrisett did an Internet search on his personal computer, typing in “suicide methods,” “best methods suiciding” (sic) and “Nembutal (pentobarbital),” according to the autopsy report. He apparently followed through quickly on his plans. University officials, for their part, had expected Morrisett to attend another meeting – one week later. But when he failed to show up, an alarmed university official asked police to do a “welfare check” at his home. A sheriff's deputy discovered Morrisett's body in his bathroom. He had been dead about one week. “An empty bottle of Euthasol (pentobarbital and phenytoin used for animal euthanasia) was found in the residence, along with a syringe,” the autopsy report stated. Toxicology tests also revealed traces of a prescription antidepressant in his system."
University officials were in an awkward position with Morrisett. They had publicly supported him all along, insisting his legal problems had nothing to do with his professional life. But the autopsy report raises questions about whether university officials were indeed throwing Morrisett under the bus as some observers have surmised. At issue is a telling portion of the autopsy report: specifically, a sentence stating that Morrisett “was last known alive at a disciplinary hearing regarding his employment due to a legal matter.” University officials, however, adamantly deny that Morrisett ever faced a “disciplinary hearing,” according to Bird. "That part about the disciplinary hearing (in the autopsy report) was inaccurate,” he said. “There was no disciplinary hearing.” On the other hand, Dr. J. Keith Pinckard, the chief medical examiner who performed the autopsy on April 6 (the day after Morrisett's body was found), said in an email regarding this issue: “Our office conducts independent investigations of death. The phrase was simply used as an inclusive descriptor of all of the collective information we obtained during our investigation of the case, rather than something specific.”
The day after Morrisett's body was found, the Statesman dutifully reported on his untimely death but offered no hint about what caused it. The Statesman also patted itself on the back, noting that thanks to its article, the university would henceforth evaluate employees who commit criminal acts within the context of the university's values and code of conduct – an announcement that, coincidentally, coincided with news of Morrisett's death. “Each criminal case is different, and the law requires that a case be evaluated based on the facts and circumstances of each,” wrote the university's president, Gregory L. Fenves, in an email to the campus community. “The proposed new processes give the university the ability to take disciplinary action when employee conduct poses a threat to campus safety and security or other campus operations or contradicts the core values upon which the university is built.”
All in all, it seemed like a bone tossed to the campus mob and news media. And while Fenves called Morrisett's death a "tragedy," not everybody mourned his passing. The Revolutionary Student Front wrote on its web page that "The world is better off, if only marginally, for having one less abusive, dangerous man breathing in it."
No public obituary or death notice was ever published for Morrisett, although a friend in the College of Pharmacy wrote a heartfelt obituary, circulated among colleagues, ahead of a memorial service for him. Morrisett was remembered for his brilliant mind and sense of humor, including cracking jokes and uttering witticisms during faculty and committee meetings. He was described as an animal lover who cared for many animals over the years, including the pets he had when he died: two dogs (Grace and Annie) and a cat named Iko. The Travis County Sheriff's Office declined to disclose information about its investigation of Morrisett's suicide or cause of death, claiming it could legally withhold such information.
The authors of the Statesman article that started it all (education reporter Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and court reporter Ryan Autullo) did not respond to an email asking if they had any regrets about their article, the events it put in motion; and how and when they learned about the old abuse charges against Morrisett. It will be interesting to see if their article wins any journalism awards.
By all accounts, Morrisett was a man going through a rough patch in his life. In the end, he was destroyed by a newspaper article, a media firestorm, and a campus mob. Readers, of course, can make up their own minds about who has blood on their hands.
Editor's Note: "As this article was being prepared for publication, the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office took the unusual step of issuing an amended autopsy report revising the circumstances that preceded Richard Morrisett's suicide. Based on "new information" it said was obtained, the medical examiner's office deleted a sentence stating that Morrisett "was last known alive at a disciplinary hearing regarding his employment due to a legal matter." The amended report simply states that Morrisett was "last known alive at a meeting with his employer." As the article noted, university officials had vigorously denied there was ever a “disciplinary hearing.” This amendment was the second made to the autopsy report. The first corrected the date of the autopsy.