The University of Kentucky’s ongoing lawsuit against its student newspaper prompted a dramatic split among the 21-member UK Board of Trustees Friday, with one trustee saying he was told President Eli Capilouto would resign if he brought the issue to a vote.
“I’ve been told by other trustees in leadership that if I prompted a vote on this today that the president would resign and I would plunge the university into chaos, so I’m going to simply express my own views today and not call for a vote,” said trustee David Hawpe. “I think the university’s position is unwise and unfair. I think it’s the wrong balancing of interests, which I freely admit exist on both sides of this controversy.”
After the meeting, which was held in Bowling Green to highlight a partnership between UK and Western Kentucky University, Capilouto denied threatening to resign. Chairman Britt Brockman also denied saying the president would step down.
“What I told David Hawpe was, in my opinion, if a vote regarding this matter came to the floor and if the vote showed a split vote then I felt the president, rather than making himself the focus of the conversation, knowing his ethics, knowing his mannerisms, that he would potentially step aside rather than have a divided board,” Brockman said. “Having said that, we don’t have a divided board. We have three people who spoke out today and they have every right to do so and I allowed it to happen as is their right. I know 17 people who don’t agree with them.”
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UK is suing the Kentucky Kernel newspaper to appeal a ruling by the Office of the Attorney General that found UK violated the Open Records Act when it refused to provide the newspaper with documents regarding a professor who was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting students. UK also refused to let Attorney General Andy Beshear’s staff examine the documents.
UK has filed at least three other lawsuits appealing rulings by the attorney general. In one case, it sued the Herald-Leader after the attorney general ruled UK violated the Open Meetings Act by not keeping minutes of a board of trustees meeting.
Capilouto gave an impassioned speech during Friday’s meeting about the school’s refusal to release documents to the Kernel.
When victims “muster the unbelievable courage to come forward and seek help — from our police, health care providers, counselors, victim advocates, investigators, or my office — they must be able to do so with full assurance that it will remain confidential; and that they retain full authority on whether, when, and how their story is publicly told,” Capilouto said.
The Kernel later obtained the investigative documents from a source and published an article detailing the allegations against James Harwood, an associate entomology professor who resigned in February without stated cause and continued to receive pay and benefits through August 31. The newspaper did not identify the victims.
But Capilouto called that a “canard.”
“In printing salacious details to attract readers, they have effectively identified the victim survivors,” he said. “You can easily find them.”
Brockman also read letters from two assault victims, although one of the letters distributed to the press mistakenly included one of the victim’s first names.
Hawpe, a former editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, pointed out that the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church was uncovered by the media. There are many survivors, he said, who feel that “perpetuating the secrecy of those cases perpetuate their shame and embarrassment.”
“My belief is our decision to refuse even to let the attorney general review materials in this case in camera is wrong,” Hawpe said. “I am distressed by a whole succession of legal problems that we’ve encountered at the university, throughout which we’ve exhibited a blinkered view of our responsibilities to protect people.”
Faculty trustee Lee Blonder said she agreed that UK should at least show redacted documents to the attorney general.
“The university is saying ‘trust me,’ and this sets a precedent for other institutions to say ‘trust me’ ... “I think that’s a dangerous precedent to be setting as an example,” Blonder said.
She also noted that the issue was putting journalism faculty in a difficult position, especially after the Kernel quickly raised $15,000 from the public to help cover their legal fees.
“This has been mishandled and I agree we have multiple open records and open meetings violations pending, so this is part of a larger picture that we need to examine,” Blonder said.
Trustee Mark Bryant, a Paducah attorney, said it was difficult to support using UK’s money to pay for a legal fight with its newspaper, “especially in a futile effort to shield documents that are already public.”
“In my four years on this board, the only time I have ever seen such vehement criticism of our university, leadership and our board is for refusing to comply with open records and open meetings requests,” Bryant continued. “Our actions in this controversy give the impression we have something to hide. The more we withhold documents, the more criticism and scrutiny we attract. What do we have to hide?”
No other trustees spoke on the matter.
When asked how the numerous court cases intersect with his frequent talk of transparency at UK, Capilouto said: “Reasonable people can disagree and there’s a civil way to settle this — in court.”