A University of Kentucky journalism professor was punished for what school officials believe was inappropriate behavior during a teaching trip to Jilin University in China.
Part of that behavior was singing the classic Beach Boys song, “California Girls,” in front of students. Buck Ryan, an associate journalism professor, also is accused of inappropriate touching and use of sexual language.
Ryan has strongly denied the allegations, which university officials said stem from incidents that happened in the summer of 2015, when he was teaching a storytelling class as part of the university’s partnership program with the Chinese university.
Ryan sang the 1965 Beach Boys song during the program’s closing ceremonies. University officials in Kentucky found that the song was “of major concern and embarrassment” to other faculty members who were with Ryan during the trip, according to a redacted letter about the allegations against Ryan.
The letter from Patty Bender, the school’s assistant vice president for equal opportunity, states that Ryan’s behavior during the trip also involved “inappropriate touching” of students and use of sexual language. The professor is not suspected of having a sexual relationship with a student. What, specifically he’s accused of doing is unclear, as several details have been redacted from the letter, which was recently made public.
Ryan wrote an op-ed denying the allegations over the weekend. The column, which was published Saturday by the Courier Journal and the Lexington Herald Leader, questioned the competence of the university’s Title IX office. Title IX is a federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination and harassment at schools that receive federal funding.
The university found that the song, once covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks, “included ‘language of a sexual nature’ and was somehow offensive, though no victims were identified,” Ryan wrote.
“If my case is any indication, then everyone concerned about discrimination and harassment should be alarmed,” he wrote, adding later: “In my more than 30 years of college teaching, I have never faced a complaint of sexual misconduct from a student.”
Ryan said he sang the first few lines of the song, replacing some of the American regions mentioned in the original lyrics with Chinese places to “teach the many differences in Chinese and American culture” and “to show a deep appreciation of China’s different regions,” he wrote in his op-ed.
For example, the song begins with “Well East Coast girls are hip; I really dig those styles they wear.”
In his version, Ryan replaced “East Coast” with “Shanghai.”
“What kind of mind views that song as offensive for using ‘language of sexual nature’?” Ryan said in an email to The Washington Post.
He added that a few of the students actually liked his rendition, and no victims have complained or come forward.
“I heard only praise, no complaints, from the Chinese university and was warmly invited back to teach there,” Ryan said.
In an interview with The Post, Jay Blanton, a spokesman for the University of Kentucky, said Ryan’s column was “manipulative of the facts” and does not mention that other professors who were with Ryan during the China trip agreed that he behaved inappropriately. The song, Blanton added, was only a part of the concern.
The letter, dated Oct. 9, 2015, states that Ryan “laughed off” the concerns after two faculty members talked to him about his behavior.
“He saw nothing inappropriate with any of his behaviors and added that he was trying to impress upon his colleagues that ‘we are in a hypersensitive moment regarding rape on campuses,'” the letter states. “He stated he thought his behavior was appropriate despite the fact that his colleagues all disagreed and were very out-spoken about it.”
The letter further states that “more than a preponderance of evidence” reveals that Ryan violated the university’s policy against discrimination and harassment.
Ryan told The Post that he’d sent an email to university officials explaining that the allegations of inappropriate touching and dismissing concerns from fellow faculty “were as ridiculous as punishing me for singing a Beach Boys tune.”
“The University of Kentucky’s Title IX office not only can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, but it also doesn’t know the difference between ‘evidence’ and ‘allegation,'” Ryan said in an email to The Post. “The university is yet to present to me any evidence. It can start with its evidence that the Beach Boys lyrics are offensive.”
In his column, Ryan wrote that he’d asked university officials via email for information about the complaints against him. His email became an open records request that was later denied, he told The Post.
According to Ryan, an inquiry about his due process rights yielded the following response from the university’s provost: “There is no constitutional right to represent the University of Kentucky abroad. Nor is there a constitutional right to teach a particular class. Accordingly, the University has no obligation to provide you with due process.”
In a written comment addressed to members of the university’s faculty senate, Ryan said: “Common decency, if not legal precedent, demands due process if a final judgment can smear a professor’s reputation with a sexual misconduct charge.”
As a punishment, Ryan was banned from receiving funds to represent the university abroad. He also was required to forfeit the money he received from a university award.
“I was convicted without trial for inappropriate behavior, which never occurred,” Ryan wrote, adding that two female students wanted to defend him, but they were never interviewed by university officials during the investigation.
The redacted letter, from 2015, was recently made public after a public records request regarding sexual misconduct charges and disciplinary actions at the university during the past five years. The Lexington Herald Leader requested the final cover letters of the university’s harassment investigations from 2011 to 2016. The records revealed that university officials have investigated 57 sexual harassment and discrimination complaints since 2011, the paper reported.
On Friday, the Herald Leader published a story describing some of the investigations, including the one concerning Ryan.
Ryan is the director of the Citizen Kentucky Project at the university’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center. He also worked as a journalist for the Niagara Falls Gazette, the Buffalo Evening News and the Chicago Tribune, according to his biography.
“California Girl,” written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, was inducted into the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010 and was once named the 72nd best song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.