In a potential multi-million dollar suit that may or may not go to trial, one thing is certain: many of the plaintiff’s supporters believe Cornell has dishonored its admirable past, while people siding with the defendants contend that no rules were broken.
The case has caused some Cornell alumni and faculty to speak out against what they believe is a cover-up by the University. Others believe that Levitsky’s actions were consistent with scientific research protocol.
This entire episode has brought issues regarding Cornell’s academic integrity and protection of its students into the spotlight.
In a motion to dismiss the case in the New York Supreme Court, Cornell’s lawyers argued that Cornell had acted appropriately.
“Cornell does not have a contract with its students to protect them from academic misconduct,” the motion stated. “Nothing in Cornell’s admissions literature, recruiting brochures, grievance procedures for graduate students and policy statements, including Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity, even remotely implies a general contractual obligation on the part of Cornell to protect its students from academic misconduct by its faculty.”
In response to these statements, Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, said, “That [motion] is a legal issue, as a matter of contract.” He added, “Our stance is that there are provisions in the existing policy for graduate and undergraduate students to bring grievances forward, and [such cases] are handled today in the graduate school and undergraduate colleges.”
Not everyone shares this viewpoint, however.
“The main thing is that there needs to be a policy protecting all students against faculty misconduct,” said Elsie Popkin ’58, a current member of the University Council. “[The Code of Academic Integrity] needs to protect the rights of students and junior faculty, and it needs to have teeth in it so that it’s not a slap on the wrist,” she added.
Popkin also noted, “I have felt that [Cornell’s response to Demas’ claims] has hurt the University’s reputation.”
The University did investigate the issue when it was brought to their attention. In 1996, the Dean of the Faculty at the time, Prof. Peter Stein, physics, conducted an inquiry into Demas’ complaints.
In his report, dated May 8, 1996, Stein stated, “A number of other charges made do not fall under the policy for academic misconduct. But they may, providing that the allegations are true and that they represent a complete and accurate description of the events they purport to describe, violate norms of behavior for faculty members.”
In the case involving Demas and Levitsky, several charges fall into this category, the report stated.
“Levitsky has persistently failed to acknowledge Demas’ contributions to their joint effort and [has] improperly used his position of academic power to pressure her,” Stein stated in the report.
He noted in his report that he did not investigate the validity of the claims. Nevertheless, “I am of the opinion that Levitsky’s preemption of Demas’ ideas (i.e., the concept and the recipes) lies within the boundary of permissible academic entrepreneurial behavior.”
In the April 12, 2002 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stein elaborated on his report: “If a person publishes an idea in a public source, anyone is free on reading that idea to follow it through and that includes asking for a grant. That’s the way science advances,” Stein said to the Chronicle. He declined to comment to The Sun.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant has been a point of contention because Levitsky failed to cite Demas in the original grant proposal.
The issue that Levitsky took advantage of Demas’ project and failed to give proper credit was eventually brought to Richard Warner, the University’s ombudsman.
As a result, Levitsky sent a letter of correction to the USDA that gave credit to Demas for data used in his original grant proposal.
According to Demas, one problem is that Levitsky took credit for Demas’ work and he caused the misappropriation of funds when the grant was later terminated. The USDA states in its termination letter to the Contract Management Branch of Cornell, “The deliverables (progress reports) submitted to date [by Levitsky] have repeatedly been late and have lacked the detail necessary to demonstrate adequate progress toward achieving the original goals of the study.”
Most of the progress reports contained no more than a few sentences describing the project’s progress.
A confidential report by the University Audit Office also concluded that over $25,000 of salary and related fringe benefits for Levitsky should not have been charged against the Cooperative Agreement with the USDA.
Despite the differences of opinion, there is one issue that all sides seem to agree on.
“There has not been an outpouring of concern as a result of this case on the part of potential graduate and undergraduate students concerning their attendance at Cornell,” Dullea said.
Expressing a similar observation, Popkin said, “What really shocks me is the complete lack of response by students and faculty.”
Archived article by Peter Lin