University of Kentucky journalism professor Buck Ryan has sued four top officials at UK, saying they defamed him and then retaliated against him when he fought their efforts to fire him.
The federal lawsuit names UK Provost David Blackwell; Derek Lane, interim dean of communications; Mike Farrell, interim director of the UK School of Journalism; and Joseph Reed, executive director of the audit department. The suit asks for punitive and compensatory damages for Ryan, who has been on leave from teaching since January.
The lawsuit is the next step in a long line of conflicts between Ryan, a long-time tenured professor, and the UK administration, starting in 2016, when he was disciplined for alleged inappropriate behavior on a school trip to China. He was stripped of travel funds and required to undergo training.
In May 2018, UK officials recommended dismissal proceedings against Ryan after an internal audit found that he had violated university policy by requiring his students to buy his textbook, “Writing Baby, Editing Dog and You: A Friendly Place to Begin Your Writing,” and keeping the royalties. A faculty senate committee later found there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing to justify firing Ryan.
In releasing the audit, Blackwell said in a statement to the Herald-Leader that Ryan “stole from students. And he used university resources to do it.”
That statement caused Ryan to undergo “public embarrassment and humiliation, emotional distress and mental anguish including staggering damage to his personal and professional reputations,” the lawsuit says.
Last November, Lane sent a letter to Ryan telling him that he would no longer teach Journalism 101 because of numerous student complaints about his teaching performance and a “significant” drop in enrollment for that important gateway class. “I believe this dramatic drop largely is a reflection of student dissatisfaction with your teaching performance this semester,” Lane wrote. “Given the importance of Journalism 101 to the continued viability of the School of Journalism, I cannot risk further alienation of potential majors.”
The lawsuit asks for a jury trial to determine damages.
“In retaliation for Ryan’s assertion of his constitutional rights, defendants have continued their efforts to coerce Ryan to resign his employment as a tenured faculty member: Blackwell has never retracted his false statement that Ryan ‘stole from students,’ Reed has harassed Ryan by continuing his audit investigation and Lane and Farrell have stripped Ryan of his teaching responsibilities and substituted therefor duties of a type and nature as to constitute an adverse employment action and/or constructive discharge from his employment as a tenured faculty member,” the lawsuit says.
Ryan’s attorney, Robert Abell of Lexington, declined to comment.
UK officials said they looked forward to arguing their case in court.
“Our response to this baseless lawsuit is straightforward and simple — the truth,” said spokesman Jay Blanton. “A team of professional auditors conducted a months-long examination of Professor Ryan’s conduct, in response to allegations of misconduct. The audit concluded that he had violated university policies by requiring students to purchase his textbook without prior permission from his department director. Further, he kept the profits from the student purchases of his book, again violating university policy.”
Blanton said Blackwell’s statement to the Herald-Leader “was accurate and truthful.”
“As the audit report made clear, Professor Ryan stole from students,” he said.
Blanton said Ryan’s removal from the classroom was “unrelated to the allegations of misconduct.” Instead, it was “due to a variety of concerns, but all relating to the best interests of our students.”