Questions surround candidate's 1984 departure from University of Kentucky

jbrammer@herald-leader.comNovember 22, 2013 

Democratic candidate Reginald Thomas photographed in the Herald-Leader editorial boardroom in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, October 23, 2013. He is one of three candidates in the Dec. 10 special election for the state Senate's 13th District seat formerly held by Democrat Kathy Stein. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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FRANKFORT — Reginald Thomas, a Lexington Democrat running for state Senate in a Dec. 10 special election, said Friday he doesn't know why he was denied tenure and faced possible termination from his job as an assistant law professor at the University of Kentucky in 1984.

Documents obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader under the state Open Records Act reveal that questions were raised at the time about his teaching methods and "lack of quotation marks ... in two articles."

In a memo dated May 2, 1984, then-UK Chancellor Art Gallaher wrote that Thomas had asked him to investigate a decision by then-College of Law Dean Robert G. Lawson to deny Thomas tenure and terminate his employment. Gallaher wrote that Thomas told him "discrimination may be involved."

Thomas, a 1978 graduate of Harvard Law School, said he was the first black law professor at UK, where he taught business law beginning in August 1980. He resigned from the university on October 31, 1984, to become general counsel at Kentucky State University, where he is now an attorney and tenured professor.

If elected in the three-person race for the Senate's 13th District seat, Thomas would represent an area that primarily covers the University of Kentucky and downtown Lexington. Thomas and two others — independent Richard Moloney and Republican Michael Johnson — are seeking to replace Democrat Kathy Stein, who was appointed to a Fayette Circuit Court judgeship in October.

In his 1984 memo, Gallaher said Thomas had visited his office the previous day "to report his displeasure with the majority tenured faculty/dean's decision to terminate him."

"He noted dissatisfaction expressed with his teaching and lack of 'quotation marks' (says he gave adequate citations) in two articles," Gallaher wrote. "Believes termination not fair — says he should be given a couple more years to prove himself."

Gallaher also wrote that Thomas believed Lawson "has worked diligently to build case against him (intimated that he is encouraged in this view by some faculty who support him)."

The chancellor said Thomas wanted him to investigate his case.

Gallaher wrote that he told Thomas he had not received a dossier from Lawson about Thomas and that Lawson has the right to terminate assistant professors.

Thomas, 60, was shown the records and questioned about them Friday in an interview at Kentucky Democratic Party headquarters.

Thomas could not recall ever meeting with Gallaher and said he does not know why he was denied tenure.

"I really don't know their reasons why," he said.

Thomas also said he was not sure if UK ever wanted to fire him.

"I just knew it was clear that I did not have a long-term future with UK," he said.

He declined to answer when asked if he thought discrimination was a factor in the decision to deny him tenure.

Thomas said he never plagiarized his writings at UK and did not know what Gallaher meant when the chancellor wrote about a "lack of quotation marks" in Thomas' published articles.

"You have to go back to the faculty and ask those questions," he said. "I can't answer those questions."

When asked if he was ever questioned about his use of quotation marks, Thomas replied: "I'm not going to answer that question."

Thomas said he was aware of concerns about his teaching abilities during his early years at UK.

"It was about my content, students' questions," he said. "I was a young professor, just 27. I had a lot to learn."

During the interview, Thomas accused the Herald-Leader of trying "to provoke a fight between him and the University of Kentucky and there is no fight."

Although Thomas would represent the University of Kentucky in the Senate if elected, he said he did not see how his tenure at UK was relevant to the special election.

"It should not be an issue in this state Senate race," he said.

Lawson said this week that he does not recall Thomas' employment situation at UK.

"I remember him but I don't know the details, and even if I did, I don't talk about private matters," Lawson said.

Gallaher said this week that he recalled Thomas at UK but "I had nothing to do with turning him down at the law school."

"I was just involved as someone at the end of the line in his concerns," Gallaher said.

Two tenured UK law professors in 1984 — Richard H. Underwood and Bill Fortune — declined this week to talk about Thomas.

UK's records about Thomas show that in July 1984 he initiated an appeal to UK's Senate Advisory Privilege and Tenure Committee about his "termination of appointment."

Thomas said he does not recall ever initiating such an appeal.

"I have a good memory, and I'm not saying these records are false," he added.

On Oct. 31, 1984, Thomas said in a letter to Lawson that he was resigning immediately to take a job at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.

"I would like for you to know that despite all of the problems that have arisen this year, I leave the law school with no feelings of malice," Thomas wrote. "I do think that the University of Kentucky College of Law ought to consider carefully its commitment to black students and faculty and I would urge that the law faculty give this issue some attention."

Thomas said Friday he took the job at KSU because it offered better pay. His salary went from $31,000 a year at UK to $34,000 a year at KSU, he said.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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