The University of Kentucky should stop trying to fire one of its journalism professors because there’s not enough evidence of wrongdoing, a UK faculty committee has ruled.
Professor Buck Ryan may be guilty of “sloppy accounting,” but he believed he had tacit approval to require students to buy one of his textbooks for his classes, according to an Aug. 6 letter to UK President Eli Capilouto from Jenny Minier, chairwoman of the Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure.
“Our recommendation is that you drop the termination proceedings against Professor Ryan,” Minier wrote. “We also recommend that you and/or Provost Blackwell clearly communicate the textbook policy to the University community.”
According to university policy, Capilouto does not have to follow the committee’s recommendation, officials have said.
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“President Capilouto has received the recommendation and will take it under advisement,” said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. “He appreciates the time and thoughtfulness committee members put into this process.”
In a statement, Ryan said “I’m gratified by the courageous and unanimous decision of the faculty Senate committee.”
In May, Provost David Blackwell forwarded termination charges against Ryan to the committee, which is made up of faculty members from the University Senate. The committee had not met to consider a faculty termination in at least five decades.
The seven charges were based on an internal audit by UK, which found 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.
The committee said the evidence did not support any of the charges.
Professors do sometimes use their own books in class, but under UK’s textbook policy, they are supposed to get permission from a department chair or dean. However, that policy is not clearly understood or enforced, the letter says. Ryan believed he had permission to use his book from Beth Barnes, the former director of the School of Journalism.
“We would like to draw your attention to the fact that Beth Barnes, Director of the School of Journalism throughout much of this period, was (1) aware that Professor Ryan was using his textbook; (2) aware that he was charging students for it; (3) had forwarded him the 2009 ethics guidelines on textbook use ... and (4) considered that Professor Ryan had her tacit approval to use this textbook during the time she was the School’s Director,” the letter says. “We would also like to draw your attention to the fact that the Internal Audit committee did not attempt to speak to Professor Barnes.”
The provost’s policy on textbooks is from 2011, based on an ethical opinion from 2009, the letter said, which recommends that professors follow a “self‐reported honor system.”
“We are concerned that such an unclear policy, which is unfamiliar to most University faculty, would be used to undertake the revocation of tenure,” the letter said. “Given the vagueness of the policy, it may be appropriate to revisit it.”
In an email interview Tuesday, Barnes said she had not questioned Ryan’s use of his book in his classes until a student expressed concern.
“I checked to see if there was a policy at UK, and then shared the recommendation on donation of royalties with Buck,” Barnes said. “He added language to his syllabus regarding that, and no further concerns were expressed to me.”
Committee members recommended that the provost send a link to the policy to every faculty member when they order books, and require the bookstore to ask if a textbook is self-authored, and if so, if approval has been obtained.
Under the policy, faculty are supposed to donate any profits to charity. Ryan said he had done so with donations to his children’s private schools. “Our view is that Professor Ryan felt that his total donations (past and current, including to his church, children’s schools, and other organizations) exceeded his revenues from the textbook sales,” Minier wrote.
The committee also found that while Ryan did use his university pro card to pay for extra printings of his book, the committee believed that a first-time offense should be dealt with at the college level, not with termination proceedings.
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 denied the charges. In an editorial submitted to the Herald-Leader, Ryan said he was scapegoated and denied due process.