Op-Ed

UK prof: Singing a Beach Boys’ tune got me punished for ‘sexual misconduct’

Buck Ryan
Buck Ryan

The University of Kentucky has punished me in a “sexual misconduct” case, in part, for singing a Beach Boys tune covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Under Administrative Regulation 6:1, Discrimination and Harassment, UK’s Title IX coordinator ruled that the song, “California Girls,” included “language of a sexual nature” and was somehow offensive, though no victims were identified.

The same regulation prohibits “making an intentionally false accusation,” so the question arises: How competent is UK’s Title IX office?

If my case is any indication, then everyone concerned about discrimination and sexual harassment should be alarmed.

The occasion for the song was the closing ceremonies for an inaugural Education Week at a Chinese university as part of a UK program. I taught a class, “Storytelling: Exploring China’s Art and Culture.”

For my Chinese students, I sang a song to teach the many differences in Chinese and American culture. The Beach Boys riff was one of three takeoffs of popular songs (Sting, Wizard of Oz) that I sang in my closing remarks.

A few of my top Chinese students attended the closing ceremonies, and they actually liked the song. One was impressed that I could use the names of Chinese places instead of the original American ones.

UK’s three-month investigation of my case revealed no student complaints. In my more than 30 years of college teaching, I have never faced a complaint of sexual misconduct from a student.

At UK, about 40 percent of harassment investigations end in firing 

As a former director of the journalism school, I know that if a student or a faculty member comes forward with a complaint, the university insists on due process to resolve the problem.

In my case, I sent an email asking to know what exactly were the complaints against me. My message was turned into an open records request by UK’s legal office. A few days later I received a two-page letter denying my request.

The dean who issued my punishment never talked to me. I learned about my fate in a letter dropped on me by two assistants just before I was to teach a class.

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My punishment in this case-without-victims bans me from receiving international travel funds and strips me of a prestigious award worth thousands of dollars.

When I inquired about my due process rights, I was told by the provost that I didn’t have any. Here’s the quote:

“There is no constitutional right to represent the University of Kentucky abroad. Nor is there a constitutional right to teach a particular class. Accordingly, the University has no obligation to provide you with due process.”

As a result, I was convicted without trial of inappropriate behavior, which never occurred, with two women students. They wanted to defend me, but they were never interviewed by university officials.

The next time you read about the University of Kentucky’s struggle to handle Title IX cases, think about my Beach Boys song.

Now you know UK has a dean in a college with a First Amendment Center who doesn’t understand the right to free expression.

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It also has a provost, or chief academic officer, willing to deny a faculty member due process in an academic freedom case.

As for the song that begins, “Well Shanghai girls are hip; I really dig those styles they wear,” what kind of mind views it as offensive for using “language of a sexual nature?”

Unfortunately, for the wrongly accused, it is the same kind of mind that can see innocent acts as perverted ones.

I have been informed by UK’s legal office that I have “external mechanisms” at my disposal. Translation: “If you don’t like it, sue me.”

The last time I heard that expression it came from a bully whistling an unhappy tune on the playground in fourth grade.

Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of UK’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center, can be reached at buck.ryan@uky.edu

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