Education

UK moves to fire professor, says book sales 'stole from students.' He vows to fight.

Buck Ryan, left, with the UK School of Journalism, talked to Eli Capilouto, now president of the University of Kentucky, during a faculty forum held in the Worsham Theater on the University of Kentucky campus in May 2011.  Charles Bertram | Staff
Buck Ryan, left, with the UK School of Journalism, talked to Eli Capilouto, now president of the University of Kentucky, during a faculty forum held in the Worsham Theater on the University of Kentucky campus in May 2011. Charles Bertram | Staff

University of Kentucky officials are trying to fire a tenured professor because they say he made students buy his book for classes he taught and then kept the proceeds without telling administrators.

The move against journalism faculty Buck Ryan – who was sanctioned for inappropriate behavior in 2016 — is nearly unprecedented for tenured faculty in the last 50 years at UK, and will be a test of UK’s tenure policies and procedures.

But UK struck a tough stance, with Provost David Blackwell saying in a statement to the Herald-Leader that Ryan “stole from students. And he used university resources to do it.”

Journalism professor Buck Ryan said he will fight charges by UK that he profited off students by requiring them to buy his book.
Buck Ryan

An internal audit alleges Ryan had made his self-published book, "Writing Baby, Editing Dog and You: A Friendly Place to Begin Your Writing,” required reading for his students since 2009 and had made about $6,000 in royalties. The book cost $30 per copy. UK policy requires special administrative permission before professors can use their own books in their classes and also requires any royalties to be donated to the school or a charity. At one point, Ryan got the journalism department to pay for a reprinting of the book because, the audit says, officials assumed the book would be given to students, not sold.

Ryan says he will fight the charges, but declined to answer further questions. He instead provided a five-page letter to Dan O'Hair, dean of the College of Communications and Mike Farrell, interim director of the journalism school. In it, he said he submitted his book for review to both the dean and the director in 2008 as part of his merit review, and took that to mean he had permission to use it in classes.

"Never did I hear during 10 merit reviews by two journalism directors and two deans, from 2007-08 to 2016-17, that 'Writing Baby' was not suitable for my classes or that my approach of allocating profits was inappropriate," he wrote. "At no time did a director or a dean hand me what the auditor's report calls 'strict guidelines regarding self-authored material sales to students.' "

Blackwell said the audit speaks for itself.

"More importantly, both violate the trust that students and others place in us," Blackwell said in a statement. "That violation of trust is why we’ve had to take this step to seek the termination of a faculty member, a move we don’t make lightly but one that we must regrettably take.”

UK spokesman Jay Blanton said that Ryan met with O’Hair last week and was given an offer to resign, which he refused. So Blackwell forwarded his recommendation for termination to the Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure, which is made up of faculty. The issue will also be considered by another faculty committee.

Both those recommendations will be forwarded to President Eli Capilouto although he is not required to follow them. If Capilouto supports termination, he will refer the matter to the Board of Trustees. There is no time limit on the proceedings. In the meantime, Ryan would stay on faculty and take up his teaching load in the fall.

Ryan has been with UK since 1994 and was director of the journalism school from 1994-2002. He first published 'Writing Baby' in 2008 and made it part of his syllabi for six classes between 2009 and 2017, according to the UK audit.

According to UK regulations, professors that want to use their own books in their classes must petition the department for permission, which the audit says Ryan did not do. Faculty must also get permission from the dean of their college. The dean must then decide “whether or not another available textbook could reasonably substitute for the book being proposed for the course."

If permission is received, then faculty are not allowed to profit from sales to students. The regulation says: “All royalties from the sale of the self-authored textbook to UK students must be accounted for by the UK employee and donated to the university, a charitable organization or another educational institution.”

The incident got started last July, when journalism school officials approved Ryan’s request for a supplemental payment of almost $1,000 to reprint 'Writing Baby' because they assumed he would give the book to students to use in his class. Instead, someone noticed it for sale in a local bookstore. The book was sold in Wildcat Bookstore, UK Bookstore and Kennedy Bookstore.

“To essentially guarantee sales of the book, he included strict syllabi languages prohibiting students from photocopying any Writing Baby materials for class assignments, and required the same Writing Baby materials for all courses he instructed,” the audit says.

The audit states that Ryan paid no money in royalties to UK, but made $6,060. On his syllabi, Ryan said the profits from Writing Baby would be used to pay off a $10,000 donation to the Bill Billiter Journalism Scholarship Fund. The audit said that Ryan did contribute $10,000 to the fund through payroll deductions between 1999-2009, but all donations ended prior to the book becoming required reading.

Ryan said he did actually donate the $6,060.

"I have donated royalties to the university on two occasions not mentioned in the report, to charitable organizations, including my church and the Governor's School for the Arts, and other educational institutions, including my children's schools, such as Christ the King School, Lexington Catholic High School and Centre College," he wrote. "Profits from the sale of Writing Baby have gone to good causes, and I have not exploited the platform of my professorship; I have been teaching students to improve their writing.

"I have been upfront and clear with my intentions, submitted my Writing Baby book and syllabi for review, and received positive merit reviews without objections to Writing Baby in any regard. I have even been the subject of a Kentucky Kernel article about professors who donate proceeds from their required textbooks for good causes."

Auditors said that Ryan refused to meet with them and corresponded only through email. In November, Ryan delivered a check to the journalism school as reimbursement for the 2017 printing of Writing Baby. He also requested a receipt for tax purposes.

According to the audit recommendations: Ryan should pay back the $6,060 in confirmed bookstore payments to UK or a charity, and the journalism school should create a process to approve course syllabi and class requirements.

Auditors forwarded a copy of their report to the UK Police and they are reviewing it, Blanton said.

Blanton said the recommendation for termination has happened only once in his memory, to disgraced UK researcher Eric Smart, who was found to have falsified research results for a decade. He was also disciplined for sexual harassment. However, he resigned before the process was finished.

Ryan, the recipient of numerous teaching awards, was disciplined in 2016 for what UK officials described as "inappropriate touching and language of a sexual nature,” while on a UK trip to China. In a widely circulated column picked up by national outlets, Ryan denied all the charges; UK stripped him of travel funds and required him to undergo training.

On the medical campus in 2015, UK officials tried to fire Paul Kearney, a long-time surgeon and College of Medicine faculty for abusive behavior to colleagues and patients. They suspended his clinical privileges but he remains tenured faculty. He was recently elected to a second term on the College of Medicine faculty council. He has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against UK, arguing that he was only fired after he questioned the financial management of the UK hospital.

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