Prof. Mukund Vengalattore, physics.

June 13, 2017

Two-Year Tenure Battle Between Cornell and Vengalattore Puts ‘Flawed’ Process in Spotlight

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Cornell suspended Prof. Mukund Vengalattore, physics, without pay on June 1, one day after the professor asked a court to hold the University in contempt and six months after a tenure review process that a judge said was “flawed, secretive, unfair.”

During that two-year tenure review, the Arts and Sciences dean overruled two separate recommendations that Vengalattore be granted tenure and the Cornell provost claimed he was not aware of information that he had actually been sent by email and letter. The former dean of faculty also sent Vengalattore misleading information and two graduate students accused the physics department’s Director of Graduate Studies of attributing false statements to them that hampered Vengalattore’s chances at tenure.

A five-member tenure Appeals Committee determined in December 2015 that College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gretchen Ritter’s ’83 two decisions opposing tenure for Vengalattore rested on a “flawed” process. Specifically, Ritter’s inclusion of a negative letter from a graduate student who later said she had had a romantic relationship with the professor, the committee said, improperly tainted the documents used in Ritter’s first two denials.

In the first denial of tenure, Ritter overruled a physics department vote in favor of tenure after a committee advised her to do so. Two months later, in December 2014, Ritter again argued against tenure — and acting Provost Harry Katz agreed with her decision — despite an investigation by a University HR consultant that found that some of the dean’s stated concerns about the professor’s labs did not accurately describe their environment.

Dean Gretchen Ritter '83.

Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun Staff Photographer

Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83.

To fix the flaw identified by the Appeals Committee, Ritter redacted the graduate student’s claims against the professor — which included that he had thrown a power supply box at her — and tasked an ad hoc committee with reviewing the redacted files.

The ad hoc committee was unanimous: Vengalattore should be tenured. These ad hoc committees typically have two or three members, according to Tricia Barry, an Arts and Sciences spokesperson.

Following that committee’s recommendation in favor of tenure, Ritter for a third time said Vengalattore should not receive tenure, saying the physics department’s divided vote, a few external review letters that did not recommend tenure and an authorship dispute cast doubt on the professor’s suitability for tenure.

Ritter said it had been “established” that the professor attempted to withhold authorship credit from the student who wrote the negative letter, but a previous University investigation found the student’s authorship allegation was “exaggerated.” Vengalattore attributed his department’s divided vote to some of the unproven allegations in the student’s letter. The tenure Appeals Committee agreed, finding evidence that the letter affected the department’s vote.

Barry said the ad hoc committee’s recommendation is advisory, “is not a separate decision on the tenure case” and that the ad hoc committee’s primary function is to ensure the department has followed appropriate procedures.

Barry declined to answer questions originally sent to Ritter, saying the matter is currently in litigation.

The tenure Appeals Committee — the same committee that found flaws in Ritter’s first two reviews of Vengalattore’s tenure application — said in a letter that “serious deficiencies” remained after the third review.

The committee called for an independent panel of internal and external scholars to review Vengalattore’s tenure application and said Katz had made his decision based on a tenure file containing “improper information.”

Ritter pushed back in March 2016, arguing in a letter to the dean of faculty, University counsel and deputy provost that “the appeals procedures do not adequately account for the complexity of this particular case” and saying the committee’s call for an independent panel “falls outside of the rules of the appeals process.”

The Appeals Committee, in its request for an independent panel, had cited a specific provision of University tenure appeal policy that says “a panel of professionally qualified and not previously involved expert scholars from inside or outside Cornell” will be convened to review the case when the tenure review process “continues to have serious deficiencies” and “an independent academic evaluation is appropriate.”

In the letter, Ritter proposed an “amended” version of the process, whereby she would again review the case instead of forming the independent panel.

The decision was left to the dean of faculty at the time, Prof. Michael Fontaine, who had to decide whether to convene the independent panel recommended by the Appeals Committee or agree to Ritter’s request for an “amended process.”

Fontaine sided with Ritter.

Professor Michael Fontaine, classics.

Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun Staff Photographer

Professor Michael Fontaine, classics.

One member of the Appeals Committee, Prof. Linda Nicholson, later confirmed the committee had upheld Vengalattore’s appeal and had assumed Fontaine would launch an independent panel. “He declined,” Nicholson wrote.

After agreeing to Ritter’s amended process proposal, Fontaine sent misleading information to Vengalattore in a letter, saying the Appeals Committee had “found no further issues with Dean Ritter’s determinations based on the redacted file,” when in fact the committee had said “the case still has serious deficiencies following the actions of Dean Ritter.”

Fontaine accurately said the committee had identified no further issues with Dean Ritter’s specific determinations, but he did not note that the committee said “serious deficiencies” remained in the whole process and that it had recommended an independent panel. The Appeals Committee’s job was not to evaluate the merits of the tenure decision, but rather to ensure that the University followed policy in reaching its tenure decision.

Fontaine did not respond to emailed questions from The Sun.

If the committee had found no deficiencies, then Vengalattore’s appeal would have been over, per Cornell policy. But that is not what happened.

Ritter prepared a redacted file of documents — this time omitting the graduate student’s letter — and sent it to Provost Michael Kotlikoff for a final review. Ritter’s “amended process” was a departure from University policy, a judge said, but Cornell maintained in court that the new process actually afforded Vengalattore more process than he was due.

“The things she recommended, she created herself,” the judge said in court. “There is no policy supporting it. And that recommendation she came up with, in my opinion, is grossly unfair to the applicant.”

After the student’s letter raised questions about Vengalattore’s lab atmosphere, a professor and a University HR consultant reviewed the environment in Vengalattore’s lab two months apart. Ritter included the first, more negative report, conducted by the director of graduate studies, Prof. Lawrence Gibbons, physics, but not the subsequent, largely positive report by Pamela Strausser M.S. ’85, the HR consultant, when the dean sent materials to Provost Kotlikoff.

Strausser interviewed five times as many people over a period six times as long as Gibbons’ review, and two of the five students interviewed by Gibbons later filed a grievance with the Graduate School, alleging that Gibbons’ report contained “blatant fabrications” and misrepresented their statements.

Gibbons did not respond to emailed questions from The Sun.

Gibbons and Strausser both investigated the "culture" of Vengalattore's lab, located in Clark Hall, pictured.

Linbo Fan / Sun Staff Photographer

Gibbons and Strausser both investigated the “culture” of Vengalattore’s lab, located in Clark Hall, pictured.

The allegations against Gibbons did not persuade the Appeals Committee that he violated University policy in writing the report. Although Gibbons did “misrepresent” some students’ views, his conclusions were reasonable and may have reflected genuine misunderstandings, the committee said.

Strausser’s report said “the excitement of students on all levels is palpable” in the lab and that the lab “is described with a high degree of pride by students who talk about their roles, large and small.” She said many of the earlier concerns about the labs subsided upon the departure of a few students.

One of these students wrote the letter that, the Appeals Committee said, should not have been included in Vengalattore’s tenure dossier. This was the same letter in which the student alleged that Vengalattore had thrown a power supply at her and had not given her proper credit on an article, actions the professor strongly denies.

A subsequent investigation found that Vengalattore “more likely than not” had a romantic relationship with the student, in violation of Cornell policy. The professor strongly denies any inappropriate relationship and says the investigation, which was conducted by Workforce Policy and Labor Relations investigators Alan Mittman and Sarah Affel, was unfair.

The student’s claim of a romantic relationship established a conflict of interest, the tenure Appeals Committee said, meaning her letter should not be included in the tenure review file. Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, an expert on legal procedure, said the investigation about the relationship reached the “stratosphere of injustice” and contained a “litany of procedural abuses by the investigators.”

One of the University’s investigators — Sarah Affel — did not answer emailed questions from The Sun.

Vengalattore asked Fontaine, the dean of faculty, to speak with Kotlikoff before the provost made his final decision on tenure, a request which Fontaine denied. Chemung County Justice Richard W. Rich later said it was Vengalattore’s “right” under University policy to make a submission to the provost, “which right was denied,” the judge wrote.

Kotlikoff denied Vengalattore tenure in May 2016 in what the provost likely thought was the last word on the issue.

In his decision, Kotlikoff said he had “not seen, discussed or considered any information that was redacted or any material relating to the appeal other than the request to conduct this review,” but the provost had been copied on one email and one letter concerning information that was supposed to be barred from the review, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

Kotlikoff, in a later court affidavit, backed off of those initial comments, saying only that he had not “considered any information beyond” the redacted dossier.

Kotlikoff did not respond to emailed questions from The Sun.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Provost Michael Kotlikoff.

The Gibbons report, which makes several explicit mentions of information that was supposed to be redacted — specifically, the power supply allegation — was also included in the dossier Kotlikoff reviewed, but Ritter did not send him the more positive Strausser report.

Having rendered its final decision through Kotlikoff, Cornell told Vengalattore his last day of employment would be June 30, 2016. Vengalattore’s graduate students say they were told via email that the “laboratory space cannot be occupied by Professor Vengalattore, his graduate students, or undergraduate students past the terminal date of his appointment.”

Some of these students had been partners with Vengalattore for five or six years, centering their Ph.D. research on the professor’s lab, which is worth at least $2 million, and many came to Vengalattore’s defense in interactions with administrators and other University officials.

In one of these interactions, Jan Allen, Graduate School associate dean for academic and student affairs, told a student while discussing the nature of unproven allegations that, “If you come to me and tell me that somebody called you terrible names — racial and ethnic slurs — if they used name-calling and labelling, I would say, ‘the evidence is you were there and you were called those names.’ That’s the evidence. I wouldn’t say, ‘you’ve got to produce a tape recording’ or ‘you’ve got to find graffiti that this person scratched on the wall.’”

Some of Vengalattore’s graduate students have come to their professor’s defense in other ways: publishing case documents online, posting statements about the case on their social media accounts and even commenting on a previous Sun story.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating whether the University retaliated against some of Vengalattore’s graduate students due to “race, color, national origin, and sex” by “denying [them] the opportunity to give talks within the University’s physics department from academic year 2015-2016 to the present” and by “telling graduate students not to join [Vengalattore]’s research laboratory from academic year 2014-2015 to the present,” according to a letter obtained by The Sun. The opening of an OCR investigation, the letter notes, does not imply wrongdoing.

G10 Biotech, where OCR attorneys held three public focus groups in March.

Adrian Boteanu / Sun Staff Photographer

G10 Biotech, where OCR attorneys held three public focus groups in March.

Vengalattore also claims physics department leadership, particularly the department chair, Prof. Jeevak Parpia, unfairly kept students who intended to study in his field — atomic, molecular and optical physics — out of Cornell. A report from Vengalattore showed “that objective indicators for students in AMO Physics were higher than those for students in other subfields,” the Appeals Committee said, but the physics department denied any bias and the Committee said the department’s actions were not proven to be outside of normal practice.

Parpia did not respond to emailed questions from The Sun.

New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Faughnan issued an order against the University and Ritter in June 2016, preventing them from, among other things, terminating Vengalattore’s employment or “denying, interfering, impeding, or restricting” the professor or his “students, assistants, or associates from accessing or using” the labs.

The University on June 1 put Vengalattore on an unpaid, two-week suspension. It is not clear if the restraining order forbidding the University from taking action against Vengalattore remains in place, though Judge Rich did not explicitly dissolve the order in his November decision ordering the University to start a new tenure review.

Vengalattore, who went to work on Friday in spite of his two-week suspension, is suing the University again, claiming Cornell is failing to abide by the Chemung County judge’s November order to restart the tenure process. The judge also said that the new process should omit the graduate student’s letter and give the professor a 45-day window to add recent research to the dossier.

Joel Malina, vice president for University Relations said in a statement last week that University administrators “thoroughly disagree” with how the situation has “been reported in the media,” but said Cornell cannot discuss specifics of the case because it involves confidential personnel issues.

Read about the full tenure review process here.