The University of Kentucky plans to sue its own student newspaper to avoid having to release documents detailing an investigation into a professor who’s accused of sexually harassing and assaulting students. In a statement, UK’s president said the suit was “to protect the privacy and dignity of individual members of our community.” The Kentucky Attorney General has already said in an opinion that the documents should be released.
The story, which we saw via Buzzfeed, has been unfolding this month in a way that’s fairly embarrassing for the university. The school’s student paper is the Kernel, which has been diligently documenting sexual harassment and assault allegations against James Harwood, a soon-to-be former associate professor of entomology.
In August, an anonymous source leaked the paper what they said were internal records from the school’s Title IX department, which detail the allegations against Harwood. (The school’s spokesperson and general counsel both said they couldn’t confirm the documents were authentic.)
In all, according to the leaked documents, if they are accurate, five students who worked in Harwood’s department between 2012 and 2015 said he engaged in conduct that made them uncomfortable. Two women accused him of groping them at separate conferences in 2012 and 2013.
The woman who says she was assaulted in 2013 said Harwood openly groped her breasts, buttocks and crotch while she was at a dinner with him and other students. A report included in the leaked documents says she emailed Harwood to tell him his conduct was offensive and unwelcome, and that he wasn’t welcome to attend a presentation she was giving that day. In his email back, she alleges, he responded, “Whatever.” From the Kernel:
Student A was present for the alleged assault, and said the victim’s facial expressions and demeanor made it clear that Harwood’s advances were not welcome.
When Harwood left them that night — around midnight, the report said — the victim sat on a roadside curb and cried before she and the other student went back to their rooms.
The victim communicated with Harwood via email the next day to say she did not want him to attend her presentation at the conference. He replied, “Ok, whatever.”
She responded, “It’s not whatever. You were way out of line the other night. If you can’t understand why I don’t want you in the audience at my talk then we are going to have a serious problem.”
A second student said that at a 2012 conference, Harwood put his hand near her breast and told her, “You don’t know how bad I can be at these meetings.” Three male students said they were touched by Harwood in ways that made them uncomfortable; one described the atmosphere in his lab as “inappropriately sexually charged” and described a weird night out, with Harwood supposedly “ordering” students to drink a lot and “pressur[ing] those who didn’t want to drink to do so.”
One of the male students said he noticed Harwood trying to follow a female student out of the bar. The male student pursued them, restrained Harwood, and was groped himself, he alleges. From the Kernel:
Believing Harwood would try to be inappropriate with the female student, Student B followed and ended up restraining Harwood. While he had Harwood restrained, Student B said that Harwood grabbed and squeezed his buttocks.The report said that when members of the group suggested that Harwood go home for the evening, he refused and urinated on the building.
The Kernel says the documents show that Harwood signed an agreement to resign in February in order to forego a hearing in front of the Sexual Misconduct Hearing Board. He denied the allegations to investigators at the school, telling them, for example, that the woman who accused him of groping her in 2013 was lying “because Harwood was one of the people critiquing her dissertation and he suspected it did not go well,” as the Kernel puts it.
Nonetheless, the investigators found that the evidence warranted a hearing. Harwood’s choice to resign instead provided him with pay and benefits until August 31.
In an email to the paper, Harwood said he was “found not guilty” and that the school had closed the investigation. He added that he was leaving for “family medical reasons.”
Two people who filed complaints against Harwood told the Kernel they want the documents made public, albeit with the alleged victim’s names and information redacted. Kentucky Attorney General Andy Bashear agreed on August 8 that the records should be released with that sensitive information redacted.
In a statement on August 9, UK President Eli Capilouto said the Attorney General was wrong in this case, in a statement that managed to imply that the paper was demanding the names of the victims.
The statement said that the university generally agrees to comply with open records requests, but adds:
But in a handful of very specific cases, we are faced with the decision of whether transparency is more important than the need to protect the privacy and dignity of individual members of our community. It is not. For example, we will never disclose the name of a victim of violence who comes forward to reveal a traumatic experience with an expectation of confidentiality. This protection is essential not only to the well-being of a particular victim, but also goes to the confidence other victims will have that they, too, can come forward, in safety and confidentially, so that we can investigate allegations of wrong-doing and enforce appropriate disciplinary action against perpetrators. It also goes to protecting the identities of those accused of wrong-doing.
It also vaguely referenced the case and the school’s decision to go to court over it:
The Office of the Attorney General, in a number of recent opinions, disagrees with our stance as do media that are exercising their duty to pursue information.
That is why it is appropriate – and our responsibility – to now pursue a resolution to these respectful differences of opinion in a court of law.
In the case’s latest twist, Kernel editor and UK senior Marjorie Kirk reported this week that Harwood was also investigated this year because partners in his research suspected him of fabricating data. The university opted not to move forward with an inquiry in that case because Harwood had already agreed to resign following the sexual assault allegations.