Kentucky Kernel Scandal: A University’s Failure


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BY JAKE MCGUIRK – STAFF WRITER

A University of Kentucky professor resigned recently over his involvement in a case of sexual harassment. In response, the college conducted an internal investigation and reached a deal in February with the accused, James Harwood, allowing him to resign and receive pay and benefits through August 31. The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, initiated an open records request in April – supported by a spokesperson for the two victims – to obtain documents from the investigation that would shed light on the case. According to the Kernel, the school refused to grant the request, claiming that the documents should not be made public because they contain “private information.” The school then asked for an opinion from the Attorney General, which is considered to be law unless appealed in court. The Attorney General’s office said, “UK had no legal right to withhold these records,” and suggested that the school release the records without the names of the victims and witnesses. Contrary to the Attorney General’s suggestion, UK filed a lawsuit against the Kentucky Kernel to appeal the decision and continues to withhold the records.

Instead of transparency, UK is opting for secrecy, and it is suing its own independent student newspaper to do so. The university would rather fight its own students, the very people that sustain and comprise the school itself, than take responsibility for its actions.

UK’s decision has many implications. For one, it shows that the school, like many large institutions, is looking out for itself and not its students. It would rather bury a case and quietly ship the accused professor to a new school than deal with a scandal. This is irresponsible and unethical. By keeping the case records private, Harwood is protected from possibly due legal action. It also prevents schools he may apply to in the future from knowing anything official about his sexual harassment case. Harwood may very well start working for another college, which could expose more students to harassment.

Some may assert that the lawsuit, being a legal proceeding, will simply reaffirm the Attorney General’s opinion. The problem is that UK is a massive institution that can sustain a lawsuit indefinitely. The Kentucky Kernel is comparatively feeble, and cannot possibly fight in court for as long as the college. Legal fees are daunting even in brief cases, and a protracted suit would allow UK to bleed the Kernel dry.

The Kentucky Kernel has argued that UK’s response is reflective of its prioritization of reputation over safety. The Kernel reported on several cases in which the college did not alert students to safety risks that the Lexington Police passed on to the college. Marjorie Kirk wrote in a Kentucky Kernel article, “If UK considers student safety more important that its image, then it needs to take a more proactive response to these safety issues.”

To be fair, we must consider that this case may not be cut and dry. There is always the possibility that, due to the details of the case, UK may have been justified in its decision. But there is no way of knowing unless they disclose the case documents. The sheer fact that the school is so adamant in hiding the information suggests that they are not confident that the public would approve of its decision. In suing the Kentucky Kernel, UK is exposing itself to quite a bit of negative publicity. This seems to suggest that they calculated that disclosing the documents could result in an even larger scandal.

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information and truth, but there still exists many means of hiding things from the public. The University of Kentucky is deliberately keeping information from the public that may damage its reputation. Sexual harassment is no small matter, especially when it is committed by a faculty member against a student. Not only do the students, their families, and other UK employees deserve to know exactly what happened, but the college should also be required to justify their decision to give what some may consider a very generous deal to the accused.

This is censorship. This is the few suppressing the voices of the many. This is a school working against its students and faculty. This is private interest silencing truth. It cannot stand.

 

 


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