Buck Ryan learned the hard way.
The University of Kentucky has punished me in a “sexual misconduct” case, in part, for singing a Beach Boys tune covered by Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Under Administrative Regulation 6:1, Discrimination and Harassment, UK’s Title IX coordinator ruled that the song, “California Girls,” included “language of a sexual nature” and was somehow offensive, though no victims were identified.
Those nasty Beach Boys. Sure, they can use “boys” in their name, but that’s because they weren’t marginalized and enjoyed Boy Privilege. But girls?* Ryan used this song, replete with “language of a sexual nature,” in what some might consider a humorous fashion.
The occasion for the song was the closing ceremonies for an inaugural Education Week at a Chinese university as part of a UK program. I taught a class, “Storytelling: Exploring China’s Art and Culture.”
For my Chinese students, I sang a song to teach the many differences in Chinese and American culture. The Beach Boys riff was one of three takeoffs of popular songs (Sting, Wizard of Oz) that I sang in my closing remarks.
Humor is a very effective tool of pedagogy, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s been outlawed in higher education and feminist bookstores. Apparently, nobody told Buck Ryan, and he was shocked to be the target of a “victimless” crime:
UK’s three-month investigation of my case revealed no student complaints. In my more than 30 years of college teaching, I have never faced a complaint of sexual misconduct from a student.
Bad as it may have been that Ryan found himself accused of “sexual misconduct” for singing Califorinia Girls, it got worse.
The dean who issued my punishment never talked to me. I learned about my fate in a letter dropped on me by two assistants just before I was to teach a class.
My punishment in this case-without-victims bans me from receiving international travel funds and strips me of a prestigious award worth thousands of dollars.
The perception of fairness is a curious thing. It feels so different when it’s stripped from someone else than it does when it’s you.
When I inquired about my due process rights, I was told by the provost that I didn’t have any. Here’s the quote:
“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.”
Putting aside the accuracy of the provost’s position, Ryan finally figured out that he was screwed. He lost money and prestige. He was denied the opportunity to defend himself. He was told that he had no due process rights. What did he learn from this harsh lesson?
The next time you read about the University of Kentucky’s struggle to handle Title IX cases, think about my Beach Boys song.
Oooh. So close, but no cigar. The tyranny of Title IX wasn’t all about Buck Ryan, and he doesn’t come close to suffering the consequences, and lack of fundamental fairness, that others have endured. But that’s not what makes his case less of a rallying cry. He was treated badly, unlawfully, foolishly and wrongfully. But it’s not as if he got sandbagged.
You see, Buck Ryan didn’t show up on campus yesterday. He’s got long teeth.
Buck Ryan, director of the Citizen Kentucky Project at the University of Kentucky’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center, is a tenured associate professor of journalism at UK’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He won the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2003 after serving eight years as director of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications from 1994 to 2002.
Director of the First Amendment Center? Impressive. So what, given your tenured status, longevity, influence and apparent connection to the First Amendment, prevented you from standing up to the sexual censors who turned every dirty joke, every comment, a Beach Boys standard, into a Title IX violation?
Was it all righteous when it was others being castigated, punished, for their “offensive” speech? Did you support it, or merely acquiesce in it? Did you give trigger warnings? Did you stand up and be heard when this was happening to others?
There is nothing Buck Ryan did to give rise to his punishment. Singing California Girls, even with cute lyrics,** is objectively benign. But then, objectivity has nothing to do with the perception of offensiveness on college campuses anymore, and it’s inconceivable that this would come as a surprise to a professor. Everything is offensive, because students have been carefully taught to search for reasons to be offended, and then instructed that they need not tolerate any offense.
You are a prof, Buck. What did you do to dispel this absurd expectation in your students, on your campus? When the other profs stood up and bemoaned the rank offensiveness of the Beach Boys, did you stand up and defend them? When others demanded your administration censor speech, did you explain that the First Amendment not only didn’t prohibit “hate speech,” but protected it?
And then there is the process by which you were found guilty. GUILTY! When students were put through the charade of a disciplinary hearing, where they were afforded no meaningful opportunity to defend themselves from charges that should have been laughed off as ridiculous, what did you have to say about it? Did you implore your journalism students to write stories about these abuses, these denials of due process? Did you write?
Not until it happened to you.
It sucks when it happens to you, doesn’t it? But by then, it’s too late. What are the chances other professors of good will will understand they taught their charges too well, and it’s just a matter of time before they will slip up and they too will be burned at the stake?
Update: A letter by UK Title IX coordinator, Patty bender, as described in the Lexington Herald Leader, provides the university’s position:
Bender’s 2015 letter to Ryan said investigators found evidence of inappropriate behavior and language with students during a trip to teach at Jilin University in China. Concerns were reported by fellow faculty.
“More than a preponderance of the evidence reveals that Mr. Ryan acted inappropriately in violation of the discrimination and harassment policy prohibiting inappropriate touching and language of a sexual nature,” Bender’s letter said. “Making it especially egregious is the fact that he was with students at a university where he was a representative of the University of Kentucky, and he fails to acknowledge any responsibility.”
What Bender is talking about is anyone’s guess, as the allegations are purely conclusory and offer no facts upon which to gain any insight. Of particular note is her “more than a preponderance of evidence” mention, since she passed judgment on her own investigation.
*This must be done:
**He “shanghai’d” Brian Wilson:
As for the song that begins, “Well Shanghai girls are hip; I really dig those styles they wear,” what kind of mind views it as offensive for using “language of a sexual nature?”