In 2012 and 2013, University of Kentucky investigators recommended that two professors not return to teaching because of violations of the school’s harassment and discrimination code.
They left, but with settlement deals promising that UK would not disclose the cases to future employers.
The deals are similar to a nationally publicized case from UK, where associate professor James Harwood was accused of sexually harassing students but was allowed to resign earlier this year under a settlement agreement. The Kentucky Kernel publicized his case, which has turned into an open records court battle with UK. UK President Eli Capilouto has been particularly critical of the Kernel, saying that writing about the case has hurt the victims.
In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Capilouto said he assumed that any problems with departing faculty would come to light during interviews and reference checks as they seek new jobs. But when asked whether the university would disclose those problems, Capilouto said, “It would depend on the circumstances around a particular case.”
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In the two earlier cases, both professors adamantly denied any wrongdoing and left with separation settlements before either case was adjudicated through the university appeals process. One of them moved directly to another school.
Harwood’s case raised questions about how widespread harassment and discrimination are at UK, and how often perpetrators are punished. The Herald-Leader requested the final cover letters of UK’s other harassment investigations, and it received heavily redacted copies from the Office of Institutional Equity under the state’s Open Records Act. Most of the letters were written by Patty Bender, vice president for equal opportunity at UK.
The documents show that the office investigated 57 people between 2011 and 2016 for violations of UK’s harassment and discrimination policy. Investigators recommended that 40 percent of them, mostly staff, be fired, including Christopher Romanek and Anthony Worlbarst.
Romanek, a NASA-funded earth science professor who now teaches at Furman University, was investigated in 2013 by the Office of Institutional Equity, which looks into all charges of harassment and intimidation. According to a heavily redacted letter released by UK, Romanek had some type of relationship with a student. This is not prohibited under UK policy, but it’s discouraged. However, relationships are supposed to be disclosed so a professor does not oversee the work of a student with whom they are involved.
“When he was questioned about the behavior that finally prompted the student to seek help from our office, Dr. Romanek then stated that he just wanted to advise her in a way that was best for her professional career,” the letter says. “Dr. Romanek was clearly in violation of university policy. What is without question is that at no time did he arrange for her to actually be transitioned to another adviser without his ongoing supervision.”
The letter also said that he treated the student “in a manner increasingly negative and different than others after she refused a relationship and it was clear that she would not reconsider.”
Romanek was suspended from campus and from contact with the student, due to the seriousness of the matter, the letter says.
Romanek’s attorney, Steve Amato of Lexington, said Romanek did arrange another adviser, and Amato denied any other inappropriate behavior.
“He was looking for a better professor job anyway, was in the process of being recruited elsewhere and elected at the end of the day not to pursue his defense of this through the full institutional appeal process and simply moved on and voluntarily resigned,” Amato said.
Romanek received two months salary and a $25,000 lump-sum payment as part of his settlement agreement. Also in the agreement, UK said that a copy of the investigative letter would be kept in the Office of Legal Counsel, but a copy would not appear in any of Romanek’s personnel files, and that “any official letter of recommendation from the university will give dates of employment, title/position, rate of pay, and reason for termination, e.g., resignation for personal reasons.”
Romanek now teaches at Furman University. Furman spokesman Vince Moore would not comment on the case and said only that the university conducts criminal background checks on all prospective faculty and staff.
In another case, Anthony Wolbarst, a faculty member in the department of clinical sciences, was investigated twice in 2012 for inappropriate comments and retaliation against whoever reported it, according to the cover letter from the university’s investigative file.
“The ... finding is that Dr. Wolbarst has ignored the warnings and information given to him previously and is clearly in violation of the university’s policy prohibiting both harassment and retaliation,” the Oct. 30, 2012, letter says. “The office therefore recommends that Dr. Wolbarst should not continue in his position as a faculty member at the University of Kentucky.”
By Jan. 30, 2013, Wolbarst and UK had come to an agreement that would “resolve this matter without the need for further cost or expense and without the need to continue the investigation.”
Under the agreement, Wolbarst would resign Sept. 30 and receive about half of his $126,344 salary and any accrued vacation pay during the six months, although he would not report to work. The agreement forbade him from having contact with students or from suing UK, but gave him full retirement benefits.
Anyone who asked for references would be given Exhibit B, a list of Wolbarst’s experience in research, publishing and teaching that makes no mention of any of the investigations against him. It says only that he retired in 2013.
In a phone interview, Wolbarst said that he did make some “tasteless” comments, but they didn’t warrant losing his job.
“In hindsight, I can see it wasn’t a great thing to say, but it was not sexual harassment,” he said. He called the investigation “a Kafkaesque situation.”
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said he could not comment on specific disciplinary matters but that universities often choose settlement agreements to part with faculty because pursuing tenure revocation is a complicated process that could take years. Tenure was created to protect the intellectual freedom of faculty, but it also can protect faculty against firing for misconduct.
“But as President Capilouto has said repeatedly, our approach is guided by the principles of federal law — stop the victimization, mitigate the effects of that victimization and prevent it from occurring again on our campus,” Blanton said. “Sometimes the most efficient and effective way of meeting those obligations is to settle quickly in order to remove the tenured faculty member from campus.”
He added: “Under President Capilouto, the university has utilized settlements far less often than in the past. But they have been used in instances where we believe the alternative is a long and expensive process that would allow a potential perpetrator to stay on campus indefinitely because of the protections provided by tenure.”
In September, Capilouto promised reforms regarding the issue of sexual harassment, including a policy that would require any new faculty to complete a questionnaire about past sexual or research misconduct. Those issues would also be examined before granting tenure to faculty.