The University of Kentucky is currently taking its student newspaper to court for requesting documents relating to a case of alleged sexual assault on the part of a faculty member. James Harwood, an associate professor at the university, resigned approximately two months after he was charged with the offense. The Kentucky Kernel, an independent student newspaper, received anonymous information about the incident and subsequently filed a public records request with the university. The full investigation was not released — only the settlement documents in which Harwood cited “family medical reasons” as the cause of his resignation. The school refused to release other documents following pressure from the Kernel, and chose instead to “pursue a resolution to these respectful differences of opinion in a court of law.”
The free, independent press has always been a vessel used to protect the interests of community members. Students sought out the newspaper with a plea to hold the university accountable. The university’s refusal to release the documents of the full investigation in the name of privacy is not only illegal, but also interferes with its own campus newspaper’s duty to report on the full truth.
The university’s actions were unacceptable. The utmost priority of any educational institution should be the safety and well-being of their students. Their failure to conduct a proper investigation of Harwood endangered the entire student body. Furthermore, their condemnation of the campus newspaper further hinders the protection of their students. It does not allow for free and healthy circulation of opinions and ideas, nor the necessary advocacy on behalf of vulnerable members of the community. As the flagship university in Kentucky, it is extremely disappointing that the school was unable to provide their students with the support they needed, and adding insult to injury, hindered other community members from supporting them.
The university claims that they face “the need to protect the privacy and dignity of individual members of our community.” From this very statement, it is evident that the university had placed its tenured faculty member’s reputation before the safety and dignity of their two female students.
The issue of university reputation overriding student safety and the search for truth has emerged on several college campuses across the country. At the University of California, Davis, the chancellor was found to have paid tens of thousands of dollars to remove any reference to violence against student protesters on campus. Stanford University has recently come under fire for mishandling sexual assault cases on their campus. In most cases, the press organizations on campus are critical in safeguarding student interests and maintaining transparency. College newspapers have historically been centers of activism and truth, and community members look to student journalists to advocate for their rights.
The university portrays this choice as a difficult one, when there really is no choice at all. It is strikingly clear that the university’s reputation was given priority over the students it claims to serve.
The press’ impact has already been made clear in this case. The Kernel’s involvement in this case ensured that Harwood’s name will be circulated and his history of sexual assault publicized. Moreover, the leaked documents clearly illustrated the facts of the case, therefore revealing the university’s corrupt agenda, allowing the public to understand the extent to which universities try to protect their reputation. Denying access to these documents only exacerbated the consequences for the university, and as long as campus newspapers exist and operate ethically, the search for truth and justice will never be over.