A story six years in the making

Pages from the Harwood file detailing the Kernel Press v. University of Kentucky lawsuit. Some information has been redacted by UK.

Sarah Michels

After an investigation found sufficient evidence to corroborate multiple sexual harassment allegations against former UK professor James Harwood, he was able to effectively retire from the university with tenure intact without being fired.  

Harwood resigned from his position in the entomology department in August 2016, after an investigation by the Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity (IEEO). Records obtained by the Kentucky Kernel through a years-long open records legal battle with the university, which ended with a unanimous Kentucky Supreme Court victory for the Kernel,  highlighted several instances of Harwood’s alleged sexual misconduct with students. 

Despite the IEEO’s recommendation to terminate Harwood’s employment and revoke his tenure, the university chose to settle instead — “to resolve this matter without the need for further cost or expense,” according to records obtained by the Kernel.

Executive Director & Title IX Coordinator Martha Alexander led the investigation, which includes statements from multiple complainants about Harwood’s alleged misconduct. The investigation report mainly focused on two complainants. 

The first complainant told Alexander that one night, Harwood took her and a group of students to a restaurant and bar, and then proceeded to get drunk and “gross and creepy.” Witnesses testified that Harwood arranged for the complainant to sit next to him at dinner, putting his arm around her despite her obvious discomfort. 

She added that she believed Harwood blacked out and, consequently, does not remember the incident. Even before this incident, Harwood frequently texted the first complainant late at night, according to the complainant. 

After the incident, the complainant emailed Harwood to tell him that the alleged harassment was not OK. However, she said she feared retaliation, since previous reports filed about Harwood’s alleged behavior regarding alcohol and sexual harassment had not resulted in any consequences for Harwood, she told Alexander.

On the other hand, sometimes there was retaliation against harassment reporters, according to statements made by the complainant in the investigation report. The details of said retaliation were unspecified in the redacted report provided to the Kernel. 

A second complainant told Alexander that Harwood approached her and her friends at a bar and touched her without consent. Further details regarding these allegations against Harwood and his specific behavior in violation of the university’s Policy on Sexual Assault, Stalking, and Relationship Violence have been redacted in the report provided to the Kernel. 

Several other students who testified against Harwood in the IEEO investigation spoke to a severe lack of professionalism. They cited an “inappropriately, sexually charged” lab environment, a tendency to pressure students to drink with him at bars and frequent intoxication at inappropriate times and locations as evidence. 

Harwood told Alexander that the complainants were trying to discredit him with “absolutely preposterous” allegations of which he had no memory. He defended himself by telling Alexander that he can rarely go out without running into colleagues, and if he was acting inappropriately, they would have witnessed it.

He also highlighted positive experiences with his students and mentioned that the timing of the allegations suspiciously occurred at a critical point in the writing process of one of his student’s projects. 

Harwood brought forward five witnesses who cast doubts on the first complainant’s character and told Alexander that they couldn’t imagine Harwood behaving inappropriately. Two of the witnesses had first-hand knowledge of the event under investigation, one of whom told Alexander that he was with Harwood all night and he was not intoxicated.  

The IEEO investigation, however, found sufficient evidence to corroborate both complainants’ accusations.

There was also enough evidence to support a finding that Harwood violated the university’s discrimination, harassment and/or sexual misconduct policies, according to the final investigative report documents.

Under these policies — Administrative Regulation 6:1 andAdministrative Regulation 6:2 — the scope of sexual harassment violations includes sexual misconduct that occurs within a university program or activity that creates a hostile environment or involves an employee “conditioning the provision of an aid, benefit, or service of the recipient on an individual’s participation in unwelcome sexual conduct.”

The scope of sexual assault violations under these administrative regulations includes rape, fondling, incest and/or statutory rape on campus or at any other UK owned, leased, controlled or operated location, and during any UK-sanctioned function, such as internships, research and travel, regardless of location. 

It is unclear, due to document redactions concerning the specific details of Harwood’s alleged behavior, whether his alleged actions included both sexual harassment and sexual assault or solely sexual harassment.

According to the investigative report, Harwood “perpetuated a hostile environment for her and other students … by forcing his students to attend social functions, imbibe alcohol, and by making comments and physical contact that were inappropriate given their relationship.”

Once the investigation concluded, the IEEO submitted their recommendations of termination and tenure revocation. UK spokesperson Jay Blanton told the Kernel that the university did not pursue those recommendations because they would take too long, and the university wanted “to mitigate harm to the victim survivor” and “remove the threat as quickly as possible,” in accordance with federal laws concerning sexual harassment cases.

When charges are brought against professors, UK has a lengthy termination process by design with multiple opportunities for appeals and hearings. Blanton said this process would have taken one to two years. 

“As a result, the quickest way to remove the threat from the campus was to seek a settlement, the result of which was the person in question leaving the university in a manner of weeks, rather than years,” Blanton told the Kernel. “It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect system. But those were the choices the institution had. As always, we sought to do what we believed would be in the best interests of the well-being and privacy of the victim survivors.”

As part of his settlement with the university, Harwood agreed to resign and cut off direct contact with faculty, staff and students unless explicitly approved. In return, the university would not revoke his tenure and continue paying him a $109,900 salary with benefits until either August 2016 or upon finding employment elsewhere.

The agreement included “confidentiality” and “non-disclosure provisions,” which “effectively prevented UK from warning other potential employers of the danger he posed to students,” Kernel attorney Tom Miller said.

The Kernel was unable to determine Harwood’s current whereabouts, but he has remained active in research and could pursue employment as a professor at other educational institutions if he wished.