Independent student paper unmasks UK

In 1971, Gov. Louie Nunn was not too happy with the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel.

Nunn, who served as chairman of the board of trustees and had appointed many of the members, was in a position to do something about it. The trustees voted to cut off funding to the newspaper.

The Kernel didn’t cave to pressure or shut up shop. It became a student-operated publication supported by advertising revenue, not the university — one of the first college papers in the country to gain independence.

That independence has paid off recently as the Kernel pushed through official UK’s obstruction to bring to light the case of a tenured professor who resigned after a university investigation into charges he had sexually harassed students.

That effort is being rewarded by UK with a lawsuit.

The Kernel filed an open-records request with UK for the results of the investigation after the professor resigned, but the university refused to hand it over. The Kernel won its appeal with the attorney general, who under Kentucky law makes rulings in open records cases that have the force of law.

UK again refused to comply, even though the AG had stipulated that the names and any identifying information of the victims and witnesses should be redacted.

On Aug. 8, UK President Eli Capilouto announced his intention to sue the Kernel to challenge the AG’s ruling, insisting that UK will never release the names of victims.

On Aug. 13, the Kernel, which obtained a copy of the investigation report despite UK’s refusal, published a story with details of the allegations against James Harwood, but without identifying the victims or witnesses. Harwood resigned in February under an agreement with UK but is receiving his salary and benefits through the end of this month.

Although the allegations have now become public without identifying the victims who, the Kernel reports, wanted UK to release the investigation report, UK says it will continue with its lawsuit.

Allegations of sexual harassment can often be murky because of the power relationships involved. In this case, a victim contemplated turning in a tenured professor who had some control over her academic future.

According to the Kernel, she waited until she’d defended her dissertation before complaining, fearful that Harwood would retaliate. Harwood said she was lying because he was “one of the people critiquing her dissertation and he suspected it did not go well,” the Kernel reported.

There’s plenty there to make university administrators nervous, uncomfortable, eager to pay a few months’ extra salary to make the problem professor go away. They have skin in the status-quo game.

The Kernel doesn’t. It’s independent. For that we should all give thanks.