UK professor claims he was targeted by university president

Professor Buck Ryan teaches his Journalism 101 class in White Hall on Wednesday, August 29, 2018 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Buck Ryan, a tenured professor whom UK is currently trying to fire, claims that UK’s president has a target on Ryan’s back.

The provost recommended that Ryan be fired due to allegations that he violated UK’s textbook policy by selling his own textbook to his students, but Ryan said he believes this is “backlash” from a public interaction he had with President Eli Capilouto in 2016.

In October 2016, shortly after UK had made the decision to sue the Kentucky Kernel to avoid handing over documents detailing a professor’s sexual misconduct, Ryan confronted Capilouto at an on-campus meeting between the president and journalism faculty. 

Ryan demanded that he apologize to Marjorie Kirk, who was then editor-in-chief of the Kernel, for statements he made about her during a Board of Trustees meeting. The president said that in writing stories for the Kernel about sexual misconduct at UK, Kirk was publishing “salacious details to attract readers.”

Ryan said he felt that Capilouto owed Kirk an apology.

“That the president would say that about her really upset me,” Ryan said. “I just thought of her as my own kids in college… the least you could do is apologize for it.”

Because of that incident, Ryan said he thinks the disciplinary actions now being taken against him are personal, not simply related to the textbook issue.

“I think that it is backlash for my support of the Kernel,” Ryan said.

Ryan is not the only professor who has the perception that this is related to Ryan’s defense of Kirk and the Kernel; former faculty trustee and retired geography professor Michael Kennedy referred to the same 2016 incident.

“The reason this is happening has very little to do with textbooks,” Kennedy said. “But it has to do with the fact that the university is pissed off— excuse my expression— at Ryan because he stood up for the Kernel on a lawsuit that the university brought against the Kernel about open records.”

Kennedy said this is what the president’s and provost’s case against Ryan is, at least partly, about.

“Otherwise, Ryan would have gotten a memo or a slap on the wrist or a request to do something with the money,” Kennedy said.

The Kernel asked UK spokesperson Jay Blanton to respond to Ryan’s claim that he feels targeted.

“As we have indicated before in response to questions, as a matter of policy, we do not discuss personnel matters in any detail,” Blanton said in a statement. “However, the audit in this issue is a matter of public record and speaks for itself. The issues raised and the conclusions reached speak to our desire to protect the most sacred trust and responsibility we have as a university— the well-being of our students.”

The investigation into Ryan’s textbook sales began in October 2017, when UK administrators formed a committee to conduct an audit into the sales of his book, Writing Baby, Editing Dog and You: A Friendly Place to Begin Your Writing.

Ryan sold the textbook to his journalism students for $40 through the UK bookstore and Kennedy’s Wildcat Den. The question the audit was expected to answer was whether Ryan misused more than $6,000 in royalties.

When the audit concluded, the committee recommended that Ryan repay any amount that he profited from his textbook sales and cease the sale of Writing Baby.

The audit states that $6,060 should be “remitted to the university, charity or educational institution determined to be appropriate, as stipulated in UK policies.”

Though termination was not part of the committee’s recommendation, Provost David Blackwell told the Lexington Herald-Leader in May 2018 that UK “had to take this step to seek the termination of a faculty member,” meaning that UK was seeking to fire Ryan, who was tenured in 1994.

Until he spoke with Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford, Ryan said he did not know that the termination process had begun.

“(Blackford) was talking about termination proceedings. The audit did not call for firing a tenured professor…” Ryan said. “So how did it go from the audit to the provost statement (in the Herald-Leader)?”

Blackford’s story with Blackwell’s quote about terminating Ryan ran on the front page of the Herald-Leader on May 17. The University Senate Advisory Committee on Privilege and Tenure, which makes recommendations to the president about whether termination proceedings should be taken against a tenured professor, had a meeting scheduled to discuss Ryan’s situation a week later.

“The provost tried to convict me on the front page with an outrageous statement before the Senate committee could meet for the first time,” Ryan said.

Because he heard from Blackford instead of from UK that he might be getting fired, Ryan said he has grievances regarding communication between UK administration and faculty and staff. Ryan is not the only one who has expressed this sentiment.

In May of 2018, a group of former faculty trustees sent out a campus-wide email expressing grievances with communication, such as in Ryan’s case. Dr. Davy Jones, a toxicology professor at UK, was one of the former faculty trustees who signed the email.

In an interview with the Kernel, Jones said that UK administration has previously had communication issues with the Board of Trustees which continued into Ryan’s situation.

“In my experience, and that of some other former faculty trustees, the university president does not provide as much information to the Board of Trustees as the president could about issues of importance to many faculty, even when such issues are news headlines in the local or national press,” Jones said.

Jones said that current and former trustees are sometimes provided information concerning faculty “by backchannel communication,” rather than from the president.

“We work hard to communicate policies and processes to all members of the community,” Blanton said in regard to the administration’s communication practices. “We can always do better. And we are committed to doing so.”

Blanton said, however, that the completed audit “did not find Professor Ryan’s actions to be the result of a lack of information.”

SACPT concluded that while Ryan may not have followed university guidelines regarding the use of textbook sales, he should not be punished with termination. The SACPT opinion, which was sent to Capilouto on Aug. 6, 2018, said the members had unanimously agreed that termination of Ryan would be extreme.

While Ryan’s defense of Kirk and the Kernel was in 2016, that was not the first time Ryan’s actions had come to the university’s attention.

In 2014, Ryan invited a group of U.S. Senate candidates to campus to speak with a group of high school journalism students. At the event, one of the candidates began shouting inappropriate, anti-Semitic comments to the crowd. UK then had to deal with the backlash.

In 2015, Ryan and seven other university employees were investigated for sexual misconduct. At the closing ceremony of a course Ryan taught at Jilin University in China, Ryan sang a rendition of “California Girls” by the Beach Boys to the students. Two separate universities had complained about Ryan’s behavior after he visited. Ryan was found responsible of inappropriate behavior in that situation.

Kennedy said he thinks this incident is also part of why the administration is seeking to terminate Ryan.

“Someone had objected to something he said on a trip to China,” he said. “That’s also a good bit of what is behind all of this.”

But Ryan said he believes this all stems from his defense of the Kernel.

“My life hasn’t been the same since,” he said.

This fall, Ryan is teaching JOU 101 and JOU 303. The provost and the president are still deciding whether to terminate Ryan— a decision which, according to Blanton, “has no timeline.”

Correction made: The location and attendees of the meeting at which Ryan asked Capilouto to apologize has been corrected.