At University of Kentucky, about 40 percent of harassment investigations end in firing

The University of Kentucky
The University of Kentucky

University of Kentucky investigators looked into 57 sexual harassment and discrimination complaints from 2011 to 2016, finding enough evidence to recommend firing the employee about 40 percent of the time.

About 33 percent of those investigated were found in violation of UK’s policies but were allowed another chance, often with more training. No evidence was found to support the complaints in the remaining 27 percent of cases.

In the most egregious cases, in which firing was recommended, it appears that most of those employees no longer work at UK.

“Generally our expectation is that these recommendations are made after very comprehensive investigations and will be taken very seriously, and we believe they are,” UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.

UK employs about 12,000 staff and 2,000 faculty.

The Herald-Leader requested the final cover letters of UK’s harassment investigations since 2011 under Kentucky’s Open Records Act and received heavily redacted copies from the Office of Institutional Equity. Most of the letters were written by Patty Bender, vice president for equal opportunity at UK.

The open-records request was prompted by the case of James Harwood, an associate professor accused of sexual harassment and abuse who left UK this year with a settlement deal. He has denied any wrongdoing. The documents show two other cases in which faculty left with similar agreements, including promises by UK not to disclose the investigations unless required to do so by law. In one case, the professor got a job at another school.

The vast majority of cases were complaints made about an employee by peers who alleged inappropriate comments or behavior at work. Some firings were recommended after an employee had already been warned about the behavior.

Most of those employees do not have direct contact or oversight of students.

Eight faculty members were investigated. Five who were found to have committed minor violations received a warning and anti-harassment training. In two cases, Bender recommended that the faculty members — Christopher Romanek and Anthony Wolbarst — stop teaching, and they subsequently left UK. In one case, journalism associate professor Buck Ryan lost any UK funding to travel abroad, requiring him to forfeit a prestigious award from the Gaines Center. He had to undergo training and was given a warning about future behavior.

Bender’s 2015 letter to Ryan said investigators found evidence of inappropriate behavior and language with students during a trip to teach at Jilin University in China. Concerns were reported by fellow faculty.

“More than a preponderance of the evidence reveals that Mr. Ryan acted inappropriately in violation of the discrimination and harassment policy prohibiting inappropriate touching and language of a sexual nature,” Bender’s letter said. “Making it especially egregious is the fact that he was with students at a university where he was a representative of the University of Kentucky, and he fails to acknowledge any responsibility.”

Ryan wrote a lengthy rebuttal questioning the allegations and the university’s investigative process, which he submitted to the Herald-Leader. According to Ryan, he sang the Beach Boys song “California Girls” at a closing ceremony at Jilin.

“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,” Ryan wrote. “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.”

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

Spokesman Blanton declined to comment on specific cases. In September, President Eli Capilouto recommended new policies to make sure UK does not hire people with a history of sexual misconduct.

“To that end, President Capilouto is committed to working with faculty and staff leaders in a collaborative way to enact these commonsense reforms and measures,” Blanton said.

“But what shouldn’t be lost in all this is that both the constitution and federal law require us to do three things very specifically and intentionally: Stop the harm, mitigate the effects of the harm, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Harwood case sparked a court battle over open records between UK and its independent student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. UK refuses to release any documents from a sexual harassment case beyond the cover letter, saying that to do so could somehow identify victims. Neither the Kernel nor the Herald-Leader generally identify victims of sexual assault or abuse.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford