UK president promises reform to protect students from sexual misconduct

UK President Eli Capilouto announced steps on Wednesday to address issues of sexual misconduct raised by the Kentucky Kernel.
UK President Eli Capilouto announced steps on Wednesday to address issues of sexual misconduct raised by the Kentucky Kernel. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto promised reform Wednesday of the university’s systems to protect students and employees from sexual harassment after enduring weeks of criticism from the student newspaper and others.

Capilouto, in an email to campus, said “we have a window of opportunity to enact reforms to our system that will better protect our students, staff, faculty, and visitors.”

That window was created by a series of stories by the Kentucky Kernel about James Harwood, an associate entomology professor who resigned from UK in February in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation against him.

Although he did not mention the Kernel’s reporting in his email, Capilouto said that over the next few months, faculty and staff leaders will work to “reach a consensus for action” :

▪ Providing better training for graduate students and the faculty who teach them to help everyone understand the “appropriate dynamics of that critical relationship better;”

▪ Requiring any new faculty to complete a questionnaire about their past sexual or research misconduct. “Today, for example, there is a higher standard in the Southeastern Conference for the acceptance of transfer student-athletes at an institution in this area than there is for the hiring of faculty,” Capilouto wrote. “That’s unacceptable.”

▪ Establishing a new process to review the appropriateness of faculty tenure when there are clear examples of sexual misconduct. “Tenure is an essential mechanism for ensuring academic and research freedom,” Capilouto wrote. “But academic freedom is not at risk in these cases; the welfare of our students and other victims is. Due process for both the accused and the accuser is critically important in all cases, but we should be diligent in reviewing the propriety of someone remaining a member of our community.”

The Harwood case exploded on campus last spring when the Kentucky Kernel wrote about how he resigned from UK without admitting guilt and continued to be paid through August. UK gave the Kernel its settlement document with Harwood but refused to release its investigative files. That dispute is now in Fayette Circuit Court.

The Kernel later obtained the documents from a source related to the case and wrote about the fact that Harwood could have easily been hired at another school without anyone knowing about the allegations against him.

“Clearly, the Kernel raised an issue that he is now addressing,” said Al Cross, director of the UK Institute for Rural Journalism. “I would like it better if he at least acknowledged the Kernel was performing its institutional role as a news medium in raising an important issue.”

Capilouto has not responded to a letter from Cross and other journalism faculty asking him to apologize to the Kernel and its staff for saying that the paper had used “salacious” details about the case to sell papers. (The Kernel is a free publication.)

“I’m thrilled the president is responding to what the victims have been asking for,” said Marjorie Kirk, editor of the Kentucky Kernel. “I think this is a good first step to find out who we are bringing to our school. I hope he continues to address the gaps in the system.”

Kirk said the Kernel doesn’t need a “pat on the back.

“There were much braver people who came forward to make this a national effort,” she said. “They deserve the credit.”

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said UK officials will also be talking with students in the next few weeks about the UK alert system. Earlier this month, Lexington police asked UK to send students a campus safety text alert about an attempted sexual assault that happened near campus a week earlier. UK declined, saying the attempted assault did not happen on campus and was not an immediate threat.

“That said, we are always open to discussions and input about how we can do a better job in communicating with our campus community about safety issues,” Blanton said. “That could mean more general information provided about safety in and around campus. We will be visiting with student leaders in the coming weeks and asking them that question — how can we provide general information about safety in a way that resonates and will increase awareness.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford