Editors Note: David Melanson is the staff representative to the Board of Trustees. He published this post on the Staff Trustee Blog.
I attended my first UK Board of Trustees (BOT) meeting in Bowling Green, Kentucky September 8-9. I had the pleasure of meeting fellow Trustees and learn more about events and activities at the University of Kentucky.
When I was running for Staff Representative position on the BOT, I promised to communicate with fellow staff on a regular basis. Though a lengthy written text is not my preferred mode of communication, it was the best avenue for this particular need.
If you have been following the news media from last week’s meeting, you know my first BOT meeting was quite a hectic one. To no surprise, a majority of the meeting centered around UK’s current lawsuits against the Kentucky Kernel and the Kentucky Attorney General regarding open records.
My goal in this email is to first provide you the facts. I must admit that I was disappointed in the media coverage from the BOT meeting. Though several media members were at the meeting, the coverage of the meeting’s events were not as inclusive as I would have expected.
I will share with you the facts that were presented at the meeting. There are no shortage of opinions on this topic, and I have my beliefs. I will share those later in the email. But there has been a severe shortage of facts. So let’s start with the facts.
Background and Facts:
UK is suing the Kentucky Kernel over an open records request regarding a sexual assault/harassment case here at the University. The lawsuit itself can be confusing, frankly. As President Capilouto clearly stated during the open portion of the BOT meeting, law nuance mandated that UK sue the Kernel. The reality is that the dispute is between UK and the Kentucky Attorney General’s office. However, in order to appeal the Attorney General’s previous opinion, UK had to sue the Kernel to bring the case to court.
Making the case more complex is that the fact that UK is technically dealing with two issues in this case. The first is regarding whether the Kentucky Attorney General has the authority to review the documents that the Kernel is seeking to determine if they are, in fact, private documents. The Attorney General contends that his office has the right to “in camera review” of the documents. UK is contending that the Attorney General does not have legal standing in this case. In fact, as President Capilouto stated publicly at the September 9 meeting:
“Indeed, the Office of the Attorney General in this state has long recognized the stakes involved and the obligation to protect this information.
In fact, the Attorney General’s office has agreed – on at least two occasions – that such information should not even be shared with their office. They have established the very precedent that is being debated right now.
Despite what you have read, even before I arrived here, in 2008, with the benefit of outside, expert counsel, the University was successful in declining to let the Attorney General review – even in private – student records.”
The crux of the second portion of the case is privacy. UK is contending that information gathered as part of the University’s Title IX sexual misconduct investigation is protected by the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law protecting student information. A good write-up about this legal matter can be read here: http://www.chronicle.com/article/In-Sexual-Misconduct-Cases/237674.
If one wondered why UK was continuing with this case, those questions were vividly answered by President Capilouto on Friday. In his public address to the Board, President Capilouto said:
“And let’s be crystal clear about the stakes of the disagreement. If it is determined that media outlets have ready access to private, protected information, it means that everyone has access to private, protected information.
Everyone – a survivor’s classmates and current and future employers, as well as strangers, stalkers, prisoners and anyone else with the time to file open records requests.
We will be saying that a survivor’s story is not theirs to tell, but it is everyone’s to share - across every platform.
With that perspective, losing a case in court – along with the attendant headlines -- worries me much less than not doing everything I can to fight for the privacy and confidentiality of these victim survivors.
It is essential that the victim survivors of sexual misconduct know that their University stands with them, embracing them when they come forward in the courageous effort at justice and at healing; and that we will do everything in our power to protect their privacy, even in the face of unfair and uninformed publicity.”
Perhaps the most profound and moving testimony made public at the UK Board of Trustees meeting came from the victims and victims’ advocates themselves. Victims submitted statements that were read to and shared with members of the Board of Trustees.
I share with you some excerpts from those statements. The first is from SPARC. SPARC (Support|Peer|Activism|Resources|Connection) is a group of students dedicated to engaging in activism and education around issues of interpersonal violence on UK’s campus.
“We believe survivors. We expect you to listen to their voices, and take this opportunity to make the University of Kentucky an example of what an institution with survivor-focused policies looks like. We, as students at UK, are in solidarity with President Capilouto on his stance to stand with survivors.
Given this information as you move into a dialogue about the efficacy of open records, we urge you to consider the voices of survivors at UK. Our campus has the right to know about sexual assaults that happen in our community, but not at the expense of the privacy and dignity of our friends and colleagues who have experienced sexual assault. There is no justice in depriving survivors of their right to decide if, when, and how to share their stories.”
As Board members, we also heard from a member of our campus community who was a survivor of sexual harassment/assault. That individual wrote:
“I have found the recent reports in the media troubling because they have not accurately depicted the University of Kentucky that I grew to know over the course of two degrees. There are other issues at play here regarding university professors who are allowed to resign without future employers finding out about sexual misconduct, or tenure revocation taking the better part of two years, in addition to the time it takes for multiple appeals.“
As I mentioned earlier, we all have opinions on this matter. Mine is as follows. I believe both of these cases need to be settled in the court of law, not in the court of public opinion. These issues are too crucial to the safety and security of our campus community. Any of us – students, faculty, and staff – could be victims of sexual violence on campus. We must determine the legal answers to these important questions so we can move forward as a University with a legal and transparent process that puts our people first.
The reality is that the legal system does not always progress as quickly as we would like. We live in a Twitter universe where we want immediate answers. That won’t happen here. Frankly, UK may lose these lawsuits. UK may win them, too. I have no idea. But I think this issue is far too important to simply cast judgment without hearing from our judicial branch. Let’s wait and see, and let a very American process play itself out.
Further, I think this entire campus community needs to listen closely to what our victims are telling us. This issue must be about the victims. If we want to be known as a campus community that takes seriously our commitment to student safety and security, we must not only listen to our victims, we must echo their voice.
In no uncertain terms, our individual victims and our victims’ advocacy group, SPARC, stated that they stood directly with the President on this issue. I, too, stand for our victims and their rights. And I will never apologize for that.