'I am no thief,' says professor as UK begins fight to fire him

‘I am no thief,’ says embattled UK professor

Termination proceedings begin for UK professor Buck Ryan, accused of profiting off students.
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Termination proceedings begin for UK professor Buck Ryan, accused of profiting off students.

Attempts to fire a tenured University of Kentucky faculty member for the first time in at least five decades began Wednesday, when journalism professor Buck Ryan appeared at a meeting of the Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure.

"The provost is trying to hang me on three hooks, theft, dishonesty and neglect of duty," Ryan said in addressing the committee. "I am no thief, I'm as honest as the next guy, and I'm always taking my duty as a professor very seriously. I plead not guilty. Thank you for listening."

The committee then went into executive session to discuss the matter, but did not take any action after the closed-door session, said chairwoman Jenny Minier.

Last week, Provost David Blackwell forwarded termination charges against Ryan to the committee, which is made up of faculty members from the University Senate. The seven charges are based on an internal audit by UK, which found that Ryan had not received permission to require his journalism students to buy copies of his writing textbook, "Writing Baby, Editing Dog and You: A Friendly Place to Begin Your Writing,” since 2009.

He had made about $6,000 in royalties, which should have been donated to the school or a charity, according to the audit.

Ryan, winner of numerous teaching awards, has clashed with university administrators before. In 2016, he was disciplined for inappropriate behavior on a 2015 trip to China, charges that included "inappropriate touching and language of a sexual nature" with a Chinese student. He lost travel funding and was required to complete training, although he continued to deny all the charges. In an editorial submitted to the Herald-Leader, Ryan said he was scapegoated and denied due process.

Neglect of duty?

A 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.

Under UK regulations, tenured faculty can be fired only for "neglect or refusal to perform his duty, or for immoral conduct." In the official charges sent to the tenure committee, Blackwell outlined Ryan's alleged offenses, saying "Professor Ryan's actions have resulted in numerous violations of university regulations and policies, which, in total, amount to a 'neglect of or refusal to perform his duty.'"

The first count says Ryan committed "theft of university property" because in 2017, interim journalism school director Mike Farrell authorized payment through a UK credit card to print another round of Ryan's textbook at RICOH Printing Services. In an attached affidavit, Mike Farrell wrote that he authorized the payment but it was "done with the understanding that the books would be given to students in the class."

"Had Professor Ryan indicated that he was going to sell the books to the students, I would have never authorized payment by the School of Journalism and Media," Farrell wrote.

Blackwell categorized the books as university property that Ryan had "sold for personal gain," thus committing theft.

In Oct. 2017, as audit investigators uncovered the journalism school payment, Ryan reimbursed the department for the roughly $1,000 in printing costs. He then asked for a receipt for that payment for tax purposes, apparently wanting to classify the payment as a gift to UK, the charges say.

Blackwell said Ryan violated UK's Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct regarding "truth, honesty and integrity," when he "asked School of Journalism staff to give him a tax receipt indicating a gift to the university when this was a restitution for theft, not a gift."

The charges also accuse Ryan of misuse of university resources for personal gain, and misuse of his position for personal gain by creating a "captive market for his book," the charges say.

Blackwell also charges Ryan with violating UK's textbook policy, which is a policy of the provost's office, saying that faculty may not profit from the sale of self-authored textbooks. Any royalties must be donated to UK or another charity or educational institution.

The audit stated that Ryan made at least $6,000 in sales to students. The policy also requires that faculty who want to use their own textbooks in class must petition their dean or department for permission.

Last week, Ryan said he had donated the money to his children's private schools: Christ the King School, Lexington Catholic High School and Centre College. He said he discussed the book with his superiors in performance reviews and assumed tacit approval from them to use the book in class.

The final count regards "misrepresentation and dishonesty" because Ryan's syllabi for classes said profits from the sale of "Writing Baby" would be used to pay for a $10,000 donation Ryan made to the Bill Billiter Journalism Scholarship Fund. Ryan contributed that amount from payroll deductions between 1999 and 2009, according to the audit.

"Professor Ryan's statement on his syllabi is a misrepresentation to his students, as nothing more was owed on the donation and he kept the funds for himself," the charges say.

According to Blanton, former journalism school director Beth Barnes said the note was added to Ryan's syllabi several years ago after she sent him an email telling him to abide by the UK textbook policy.

'Out to get me'

Ryan has denied all the charges and accused the university of trying to ruin his reputation.

"The provost made one thing clear: the university is out to get me and it will do anything, even fabricate, to achieve that goal by smearing me and convicting me in the press," Ryan said Wednesday.

Some UK faculty are concerned that such a harsh punishment is being meted out around a vague policy that many faculty have never heard of, said Michael Kennedy, a retired UK geography professor who represents the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Kennedy said he used his own textbooks in class without getting permission, although he would write a check to each student for the amount of royalty he would have received from each book.

"It is my belief that something else is going on," Kennedy wrote in a letter to the tenure review committee. "Maybe the university is flexing its 'we can fire tenured faculty' muscles, as part of the statewide and national attack on academic freedom and tenure. There may be other reasons the UK administration wants to dismiss an otherwise effective teacher, of which I am not aware. In any event this UK action is like assigning a twenty-year prison term for a jaywalking offense. And guilt of the offense itself is highly questionable."

Earlier this year, Kentucky lawmakers included language in the state's two-year budget that makes it easier to fire tenured faculty because of budgetary constraints, which many saw as a direct attack on tenure. UK, though, has not altered its tenure policies in response to the law.

The tenure review committee will investigate the charges against Ryan and then recommend to the president if termination proceedings should go forward. Another university senate panel would then hold a hearing, and report to the president. Ryan will also be able to appeal to the UK Board of Trustees.

In 2015, UK officials tried to fire Paul Kearney, a long-time surgeon and College of Medicine faculty member for abusive behavior to colleagues and patients. They suspended his clinical privileges but he remains a tenured faculty member. He was recently elected to a second term on the College of Medicine faculty council.

Kearney has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against UK, arguing that he was only fired after he questioned the financial management of UK HealthCare.