Communications of UK students requested in suit of tenured professor


Journalism professor Buck Ryan before a College of Communication and Information meeting with President Eli Capilouto on Friday, September 21, 2018 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Sarah Michels

Journalism professor Leland “Buck” Ryan has requested the disclosure of communications between him and at least seven former students as part of his second lawsuit against the University of Kentucky, according to reporting done by the Kentucky Kernel.

In early March, in accordance with the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), several of Ryan’s former journalism students were notified that their communications with Ryan were being requested as part of a pretrial discovery phase.

They were given 10 days to file a written objection to disclosure under FERPA with the Fayette County Clerk’s Office if they chose to do so.

It is unclear whether or not any students have made any objections on these grounds.

Ryan’s counsel, Robert Abell, said that his office has received some, but not all, of the completed document requests. They are currently in the process of reviewing those that have been produced and are awaiting the others.

The second lawsuit was initially filed weeks after Ryan’s previous lawsuit against UK administrators regarding alleged rights violations during termination proceedings was dismissed on Nov. 18, 2019.

The current lawsuit, Buck Ryan v. Board of Trustees of the University of Kentucky et al, names as defendants the Board of Trustees, Title IX Coordinator Martha Alexander and a former journalism student who filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) against Ryan in 2018.

Filed in early December 2019, the lawsuit charges the University and Alexander with retaliation and the former student, who was granted anonymity from the Kernel, with defamation and false light against Ryan.

Ryan’s former student said she became uncomfortable when Ryan began texting and calling the former student outside of class time and on the weekends. According to her written statement, he once offered her tickets to attend a UK football game with him, an invitation she did not respond to.

According to Ryan’s counsel, these tickets were later offered to 25 other people, including students and faculty.

The former student filed a complaint with the OIE office on grounds that Ryan had violated UK’s discrimination and/or sexual harassment policy.

According to a Kernel article about the first lawsuit, Ryan said that the OIE, the office that enforces Title IX, was unfairly weaponized against him after the student’s complaint was filed.

The current suit states that UK’s retaliation and the student’s allegedly baseless claim against Ryan has caused him “great emotional distress and mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation, as well as damage to his personal and professional reputations.”

Depending on the findings of the document requests, as well as depositions and interrogatories – written questions answered under oath – some students may be called as witnesses when the second case goes to trial, according to Ryan’s counsel, Robert Abell.

Currently, the civil case is still in the pre-trial discovery phase, a process that has been prolonged due to coronavirus complications.

Once significant progress is made in the discovery phase, a trial date will be set. Abell said that he anticipates the court date to be scheduled sometime in the first quarter of 2021.

The students were not told what exactly the prosecution is looking for within their communications with Ryan.

Abell said that the communications are relevant to the case since they were the basis of the former student’s complaint with the OIE office against Ryan.

“I can’t see any reason why my communications would be very relevant,” said Abbey Huffman, who took two of Ryan’s classes. “Any communication I had with him was quick, normal and me talking to my professor.”

This was a common sentiment amongst the other students, most of whom did not object to disclosure of their emails under FERPA.

“I don’t know how this is going to end up, but I’d rather them have every bit of information that could help,” said Bailey Vandiver, a UK senior and former Kernel editor who chose not to file an objection under FERPA.

In an email to students in early December 2019, University President Eli Capilouto said the current lawsuit was “without merit” and that UK would not allow the intimidation of any member of its community.

Ryan was previously investigated for sexual misconduct by the OIE in 2015. Vandiver said that she has heard bits and pieces of stories about Ryan’s alleged misconduct within his professional capacity as a professor.

“You start to get a vibe or feeling of a little bit of discomfort; maybe nothing explicit that ever happened to you but just a little bit of, ‘is he overstepping his bounds in general as a professor?’” Vandiver said.

Arden Barnes, a senior journalism student, said that she attributes some of Ryan’s actions to his unique communication style and the way he is as a person. She said Ryan occasionally emailed her personally during her time in his journalism class.

“It wasn’t weird, it was very ‘Buck.’ Not in a bad way, just kind of like unsolicited help in a way,” said Barnes. “Just little things that weren’t out of the ordinary but also weren’t things that all my professors were doing either.”