KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart wants the school to play a leading role in addressing sexual assault after the recent settlement of a Title IX lawsuit filed against the university.
The school agreed last month to pay $2.48 million to settle a lawsuit filed in February by eight unidentified women who said the university created a “hostile sexual environment” through a policy of indifference toward assault complaints against athletes.
As part of the settlement, Tennessee is announcing a series of initiatives to improve its Title IX efforts and is appointing an independent commission to review the school’s existing programs and make recommendations regarding sexual assault and misconduct.
“It only enhanced and increased our collective desire to be a national leader in that regard,” Hart said while discussing the school’s educational and training efforts in an interview with The Associated Press.
Hart added that “it’s a national issue” and “we’ve taken a collective posture that we think we can make a difference.”
Under the terms of the settlement, Tennessee agreed to change its rules regarding student disciplinary hearings and use “its best efforts to enforce mandatory sexual assault training” for school employees reasonably likely to be among the first to learn about potential cases.
The school also is adding seven employees to the two offices that deal with sexual assault investigations and support for victims of sexual misconduct and stalking. That includes two wellness coordinators who will work with athletes on sexual assault awareness and other issues such as drugs, alcohol and stress management.
The lawsuit was part of a turbulent year for Tennessee that also included the death of former women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and the announcement that chancellor Jimmy Cheek is stepping down to return to a teaching role. Those changes overshadowed the athletic department’s improvements in fundraising and academic performance.
“It was an emotional year,” Hart said. “I love this university dearly. It was a tough year for everybody.”
The toughest moment came June 28 with the death of Summitt, who won eight national title and 1,098 games at Tennessee. Summitt had stepped down as Tennessee’s coach in 2012, one year after announcing she had early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“The passing of Pat was one of the most emotional moments for me in my career,” Hart said. “You just don’t have many icons. I’ve had the pleasure of working with other icons, (and) what separated Pat from the others is what she did not only for her sport — she put her sport of women’s basketball literally on the map at a very high level — but what she did for women’s athletics and what she did for people young and old.
“There will never be another one like Pat Summitt.”
Hart, who took over as Tennessee’s athletic director in 2011, helped get a statue of Summitt built on campus in 2013. The plaza that includes the statue was the site of a candlelight vigil the night after Summitt’s death.
“I can look out my window at the Pat Summitt Plaza every day,” Hart said. “Thank goodness we got that in place. We made that a real priority and I personally wanted it to be done while Pat was very cognizant of it and could appreciate what was happening there and that transpired.”
Plenty of intrigue surrounds Tennessee as it heads into the 2016-17 school year.
On the field, Tennessee is the preseason favorite to capture the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division football title after ending the 2015 season on a six-game winning streak.
Off the field, Tennessee has launched a search for its next chancellor after Cheek announced in June he would return to a teaching role. Hart said he has “thoroughly enjoyed” working with Cheek and acknowledged the uncertainty that comes with a change in chancellors.
“I think everyone’s impacted by that certainly, just as you would be in a corporation or business,” Hart said. “You’re basically getting another CEO.”
Tennessee has made progress in various aspects since Hart’s arrival.
Football season ticket sales for 2016 already are at their highest level since 2008. Greg Hulen, the athletic department’s chief development officer, said the department received $163 million in gifts and pledges during a campaign that ran from July 2013 to June 2016. Hulen said “in terms of overall support, that is right up there with the best three-year run we’ve had.”
In the classroom, Tennessee’s Academic Progress Rate for football was low enough in 2013 that it faced the likelihood of penalties if it didn’t improve. Tennessee has since upgraded its APR dramatically, and student-athletes overall have posted grade point averages of 3.0 or better for five consecutive semesters.
Now that Tennessee has started making those kinds of strides, the 67-year-old Hart says he has no interest in stepping down anytime soon.
“I still have the same level of energy and work ethic that I’ve always had,” Hart said. “I still love what I do.”