UK faculty committee holds special meeting as story on accused professor goes nationwide

Buck Ryan
Buck Ryan

The University of Kentucky’s Senate Council held a specially called meeting Monday to discuss the case of a journalism professor accused of misconduct whose story has exploded across social and national media.

The council, which is an executive committee of the University Senate, did not bring up Buck Ryan by name but echoed his own concerns about due process in his case. On Friday, the Herald-Leader published an article about UK’s penalties against Ryan for what officials described as inappropriate conduct on an overseas teaching trip to China in 2015. It also published a commentary by Ryan, in which he said he was punished, in part, for singing a Beach Boys song and denied due process.

“Really, the issue is, are the university’s procedures fair to everyone?” said Bob Grossman, a faculty member of the Board of Trustees and a member of the Senate Council. “That is a concern that should be shared by faculty, staff, administration and students.”

The council asked Patty Bender, the director of UK’s Office of Institutional Equity, to speak to the council soon.

Grossman was on the trip to Jilin University in the summer of 2015 with Ryan, but said he could not comment on the case’s particulars.

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Ryan’s commentary piece has received national attention, sparking a story in the Washington Post and a mention on Rush Limbaugh’s talk radio show about the absurdities of political correctness.

In his editorial, Ryan said university funding for his international travel was revoked because, in part, he sang a Beach Boys song at a banquet at Jilin University, where a group of UK faculty were teaching in the summer of 2015. In the editorial, Ryan does not address other charges from the Office of Institutional Equity.

A letter from Bender detailing the charges is heavily redacted by the university, so it does not fully describe what happened. “More than a preponderance of the evidence reveals that Mr. Ryan acted inappropriately in violation of the discrimination and harassment policy prohibiting inappropriate touching and language of a sexual nature,” the letter says.

Under its current policy, UK does not release other investigative documents, which has led to a nationally publicized lawsuit with the student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. In that case, a professor was accused of sexual harassment and abuse toward students, but entered into a settlement with UK in which he left with payment and no mention of the allegations.

The Herald-Leader requested all such cover letters written between 2011 and 2016, which turned up Ryan’s case and 56 other investigations. Two other professors also entered settlements in which UK agreed not to mention the harassment allegations to future employers.

At UK, about 40 percent of harassment investigations end in firing

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said UK had offered to release the full investigative file if Ryan waived confidentiality and any claims against UK, but that Ryan declined.

Ryan, an associate professor with tenure, did not attend the Monday council meeting, but reached afterward, he said he had requested the same information a year ago in an open-records request, and it was denied.

“Now the university is asking me to sign away my rights,” he said. “I am not signing away a single claim I have against the university.

“The university has already violated my constitutional right to due process,” Ryan said. “With due process, I would have been able to confront my accusers ... and also would have been able to provide witnesses who could have exonerated me.”

Blanton said the initial charges were made by faculty on the trip.

“These faculty members complained — and had deep concerns — about his conduct,” Blanton said. “Two universities that partner with UK — Shanghai and Jilin — also have complained about professor Ryan. Our Title IX office investigated the complaints at length, interviewed professor Ryan as part of the investigation, and the faculty who accompanied him. The faculty were unanimous in their complaints and their concerns, in which a preponderance of evidence concluded that he engaged in ‘inappropriate touching’ and ‘language of a sexual nature.’”

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Based on Bender’s recommendations, communications dean Dan O’Hair revoked Ryan’s international travel funding and a prestigious Gaines award for international travel.

Ryan said statements about previous complaints were “outrageous” and “unsubstantiated.”

“I have only received teaching awards, praise and invitations to return to both Shanghai and Jilin universities,” he said. “Never once has an administrator talked to me about any complaints.”

On Monday, council members said they were also concerned that so few people are involved in making recommendations and deciding punishments of faculty. Blanton said that funding decisions are solely in the purview of a dean.

Several council members said that faculty might not know they can go to the Senate’s Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure. Many faculty think this has only to do with getting tenure, but faculty can bring other issues before it as well. Senate Council chairwoman Katherine McCormick said she would send a letter to faculty updating them on some of these issues.

Ryan said he wasn’t sure what his next step would be.

“My reputation has been damaged, I’ve lost funding, I’ve lost this prestigious award,” he said. “Now they want to bait me into court, putting taxpayers against my children’s college funds. There has to be some better resolution than that.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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