Nearly a decade ago — long before he claimed Cornell exerted bias in not admitting students to his lab, unfairly denied him tenure and continues to violate a court order by not restarting the tenure review process — Prof. Mukund Vengalattore, physics, was seen by colleagues as a vital hire for the University.
The professor now claims Cornell has consistently been wronging him since 2012, when he first applied for tenure. The University’s wrongdoing, the professor alleges, was at its peak during his tenure review, which a judge said violated Vengalattore’s due process rights “to such an extent as to be arbitrary and capricious.” The University must restart the tenure review, Chemung County Court Justice Richard Rich ruled in November 2016.
The University has twice tried to remove Vengalattore from campus — first in June 2016, and now on Friday, when it imposed an unpaid, two-week suspension on the professor. Vengalattore asked a Schuyler County Court to hold the University in contempt last week because, he said, Cornell has yet to start its new, court-ordered tenure review.
* * *
- Cornell hires Vengalattore, then a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, as a tenure-track assistant-professor. Vengalattore took the offer, padded with a $2 million startup package, an $80,000 nine-month salary, and a guaranteed minimum of 526 square feet of lab space.
- Vengalattore was an important hire for the University, his former colleague Prof. Keith Schwab, now at Caltech, told The Sun. For nearly five years before hiring Vengalattore, Schwab said, Cornell had been unsuccessfully searching for a specialist in Vengalattore’s field — atomic, molecular, and orbital physics.
- “We did everything we could to bring Mukund to Cornell,” Schwab said.
- Twenty members of the physics faculty vote unanimously to reappoint Vengalattore to his assistant professorship. The department’s chair at the time, Prof. Ritchie Patterson, called Vengalattore “a researcher of high caliber with great potential,” stressing that Vengalattore’s accomplishments were “especially impressive given that you are the only researcher at Cornell in this exciting new and growing area.”
- From late 2009 to 2011, Vengalattore had been identifying promising AMO Ph.D. applicants and asking the department to consider admitting those students. The effort was largely unsuccessful, he now says.
August – December 2012
- A graduate student working in Vengalattore’s labs — later identified in court documents as LA — leaves the labs, saying she is having challenges with the work and is “beginning to feel that I can do nothing right.”
- LA’s departure seems amicable at first: the two exchanged texts, LA wished Vengalattore a happy birthday and, two weeks after her departure, the student asked to rejoin the lab.
- But, shortly after, LA complained to Prof. Lawrence Gibbons, physics, of “angry interactions” with Vengalattore and a poor lab atmosphere. She alleged several times over the next two years that Vengalattore either threw or slid a power supply at her head or her feet.
- The department chair at the time, Prof. Jeevak Parpia, is informed of the allegation. Vengalattore is not. The allegation is not investigated.
April 15, 2013
- LA reaches out to Prof. Swati Singh, physics, Williams College, who was a collaborator with Vengalattore, telling her that, “if I have my way, [Vengalattore] will have a hard time getting tenure,” according to a letter Singh later writes in support of Vengalattore.
- Vengalattore, in his fifth year of being an assistant professor, applies for tenure.
- LA, who later said she was sexually assaulted by Vengalattore, asks a professor in February 2014 to warn students not to join Vengalattore’s research group. The professor declines to do so.
- The department still has not told Vengalattore about the allegations, despite multiple students informing department leadership about the allegations, concerns about their basis and the effects on the student and Vengalatorre’s lab.
- LA submits a letter that would become one of the documents included in the physics department’s review of tenure for Vengalattore. Several allegations, including the power supply allegation, appear in the letter. It is a marked contrast from a 2011 letter LA wrote praising the professor for encouraging students “to take any opportunities to talk about our research” and advocating that his assistant professorship be renewed.
- Vengalattore learns from his own graduate students that LA’s allegations are spreading through the department, but he doesn’t know what the specific allegations are, he says.
- Vengalattore tells senior professors he will go to the University with a complaint that the department has not investigated the allegations. The professors ask Vengalattore to keep his complaints within the department, which Vengalattore, promised an investigation from the department, agrees to do.
- Parpia, the department chair, asks Arts and Sciences Dean Gretchen Ritter ’83 for an extension on the department’s review of Vengalattore so it can investigate LA’s allegations. It appears the request was not granted.
- The physics department enlists one of its professors — Prof. Lawrence Gibbons — to review Vengalattore’s lab culture. Gibbons’ report, based on interviews of five students over about 10 days, reflects the lab negatively. The report goes in Vengalattore’s tenure dossier — the files reviewed by those deciding if he will be granted tenure.
- Two of Vengalattore’s graduate students later filed an official grievance with the Graduate School alleging the Gibbons report contained “blatant fabrications.”
- Seeing Gibbons’ findings, released a week before the department’s tenure vote, Vengalattore emails Parpia to ask if the department had commenced its promised investigation into LA’s power supply allegation. “I do not have the means to conduct an in depth ‘investigation,’” Parpia responded.
- Vengalattore is receiving support from some of his former colleagues. Singh — the Williams College professor in whom LA confided that if she had her way, Vengalattore would have a hard time receiving tenure — says she finds LA’s claims “unbelievable, and l hope so does almost every other person who has worked with [Vengalattore],” according to a letter that she wrote to the department in July 2014.
- In September 2014, the physics department votes to recommend Vengalattore for tenure and to send their recommendation to Ritter. The true count of the vote is disputed, but it is clear that the vote was far from unanimous, and estimates from the department chair show Vengalattore prevailing by a five-vote margin out of nearly 30 votes.
- Parpia calls LA and tells her about the department’s vote, according to LA.
- Two days after learning of the vote, LA says Vengalattore had previously sexually assaulted her, after which a year-long secret, sexual relationship allegedly followed.
Although the University learned of LA’s sexual assault allegation in September 2014, it did not inform Vengalattore of the allegation until March 2015, possibly counter to University policy providing that “[w]hen [a] complaint from any source is made against a … professor … which might lead to his or her dismissal or to suspension for the period of one semester or more, the dean of his or her college … shall inform the faculty member of the complaint.”
Cornell said in court that Vengalattore was not at that point subject to the possibility of dismissal or suspension, so the policy did not apply.
- Then-Director of University Division of Workplace Policy and Labor Relations, Alan Mittman, is asked for advice by a physics professor on handling the allegation, but no investigation begins. It is unclear why an investigation did not start immediately.
- LA’s negative tenure review letter remains in the dossier. A committee later finds that LA’s letter should not have been in Vengalattore’s tenure file because the sexual assault allegation against Vengalattore created a conflict of interest.
- Ritter receives the physics department’s recommendation for tenure. She forms a committee to review the documents, still including LA’s letter.
- The committee recommends against tenure, and Ritter affirms its decision, citing two “interconnected” reasons: “Dr. Vengalattore has not adequately demonstrated his scientific productivity in key areas. Second, he has failed in his role as an effective mentor for his PhD students,” Ritter wrote in the letter.
- Vengalattore wrote a long response to Ritter’s denial. The professor defended his group’s and his own physics chops, saying that his papers averaged 85 citations each — “almost double that of recently tenured faculty in the Cornell” — and that his students earned 21 awards in five years.
- The physics department commissions a Cornell consultant to”determine the current state of the human dynamics (climate) in the Vengalattore Lab among graduate and undergraduate students.”
- Over 50 days, Pamela G. Strausser M.S. ’85, a senior HR consultant, interviews 26 people associated with Vengalattore’s lab.
- “The excitement of students on all levels is palpable,” Strausser found in her report. “The lab is described with a high degree of pride by students who talk about their roles, large and small.”
- After the Strausser report came out, Vengalattore’s colleagues tell him his tenure-related problems are solved, Vengalattore claims. “Now you can rest,” one of Vengalattore’s colleagues allegedly told him.
- Parpia asks Ritter to reconsider her initial denial of tenure in light of the Strausser report.
- “Strausser’s findings that [Vengalattore]’s laboratory is now free of the sort of corrosive atmosphere described in some of the student letters is significant,” Parpia said. “It is aligned with [Vengalattore]’s point of view that there was a time in 2011-2013 where interactions with [LA] and [another student] created a less than ideal atmosphere.”
- Ritter, at this point, was aware of LA’s sexual assault and sexual relationship claims, court documents suggest. Vengalattore was not.
- Ritter denies Vengalattore’s and Parpia’s request to approve the professor for tenure. She doubted “the strength and depth of the reforms that have occurred” and “the value of the additional evidence” in the Strausser report, and she expressed concern about the relatively narrow vote in Vengalattore’s favor among the physics faculty.
- Ritter said Vengalattore was likely “on his best behavior” during the review and the interviewed students had motive to lie since “their academic futures depend, at least in part, on the support and goodwill of their faculty supervisor.” However Strausser did not attribute comments to individual students.
- The tenure review dossier is sent to then-Provost Harry Katz.
- There has not yet been a hearing on any of LA’s allegations — sexual assault, relationship or power supply throwing incident.
- Katz forwards Vengalattore’s file to the Faculty Advisory Committee on Tenure Appointments. FACTA, by a 10-2 vote, advises Katz to side with Ritter, saying the professor should not be tenured. To some on the committee, it is clear that LA’s allegations were impactful.
- “A great deal of [FACTA’s] concern seems rooted in the charges of [LA],” wrote FACTA member Prof. Cynthia Farina, law, one of two FACTA members who voted for Vengalattore. “Several things in the file cast doubt on the charges, making it difficult to discern their true seriousness. Given that, it’s troubling that this issue exploded, so late in the tenure process, into a major factor in the negative outcome.”
- Prof. Paulette Clancy, chemical and biomolecular engineering, who voted against Vengalattore, wrote, “Clearly the only students who are prepared to take the abuse [Vengalattore] dishes out are both men and they are both from the Indian sub-continent, where perhaps the culture between advisor and protege is different.” Clancy, perhaps prophetically, called Vengalattore “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Most FACTA members felt Ritter had come to her conclusion reasonably. Vengalattore maintains that FACTA was not given the Strausser report since the negative findings of the Gibbons report play a role in many members’ written decisions, which were obtained by The Sun.
- Katz accepts FACTA’s decision and denies Vengalattore tenure.
- Vengalattore appeals the denial of tenure to the dean of faculty.
- Vengalattore discovers the allegations LA made in the letter, which did not include the sexual assault and relationship claims. By his telling, he still does not know about the sexual assault allegation, which is not in the student’s letter.
- “The University speaks of a level playing field but keeping the allegations secret from Professor Vengalattore while having those allegations sour his tenure review creates anything but a level playing field and was arbitrary and capricious,” the judge in Vengalattore’s later court case wrote.
- Two days after the appeal, Vengalattore learns Ritter has authorized the WPLR — the office that investigates disputes involving faculty members — to investigate his alleged year-long relationship with LA, which may have violated of the University’s faculty romance policy. This is when Vengalattore learns about the sexual assault allegation that had been made against him six months prior.
- “Pursuant to University policy, the Professor was entitled to notice of the misconduct allegations and to a hearing concerning the allegations,” a judge later said.
- WPLR investigators Mittman and Sarah Affel say they cannot investigate LA’s accusation of sexual assault, finding it time-barred under Cornell Policy 6.4
Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, an expert on legal procedure, said the WPLR investigation reached “the stratosphere of injustice” and that “Cornell followed no procedure at all” in handling the case.
- Then-dean of faculty, Prof. Joseph Burns, decides that Vengalattore’s tenure appeal is not frivolous. Burns sends the appeal to a tenure Appeals Committee. The committee’s charge is to determine whether Vengalattore could establish the grounds for his appeal.
- To establish the first ground of his appeal, Vengalattore sets out to show that the physics department discriminated against Ph.D. applicants in AMO physics, the effect allegedly being to keep Vengalattore’s lab poorly staffed.
- As part of his fact finding, Vengalattore asks Parpia to see the department’s graduate admissions documents, but Parpia, according to Vengalattore, told the professor the documents had been destroyed. Parpia did not respond to emailed questions.
- The documents were in fact available, and upon Burns’s request, Vengalattore said, the Graduate School allowed the professor to review them.
- Vengalattore sifts through the documents, spending seven hours over two days in a room where he, while supervised, was allowed to view computerized versions of the files.
- Meanwhile, Vengalattore notices that the tenure Appeals Committee appears to know about the ongoing WPLR investigation. Vengalattore emails Affel saying the panel’s knowledge of the investigation “explicitly contradicts what I was told by you and Mittman, i.e. that this investigation was independent of the tenure appeals process.”
- Burns responds to Vengalattore on Affel’s behalf: “I believe that neither myself nor my staff have told the appeals committee anything about another investigation, beyond perhaps its existence. We certainly have not revealed any details about that investigation, for we know none.”
- But Ritter had emailed every member of the tenure appeals committee to inform them of LA’s complaints, “including an accusation that there had been an inappropriate sexual relationship between the two of them,” Ritter wrote. “Preliminary evidence indicates that these complaints are not frivolous.”
- Vengalattore assembles his findings from the admissions documents in a report, which he turns over to the tenure appeals committee. The committee, at the time, is convinced: The findings “support[ed] [Vengalattore’s] claims of bias,” the committee wrote in a draft report.
Prof. Keith Schwab, physics, CalTech, who was on the committee that hired Vengalattore at Cornell in 2008, said the physics department’s alleged interference hobbled Vengalattore’s research potential.
“This means that Mukund gets graduate students who came to Cornell not intending to do [AMO] physics. And largely, this means another group rejected them. So they came to work with some other professors, those guys fired them, and then Mukund gets the scraps,” Schwab said. “So, here’s Mukund trying to do some of the most difficult experiments that human beings do with students who are not motivated and who have already been passed over.”
- The tenure Appeals Committee, in a draft report, finds two of Vengalattore’s grounds for appeal have been met.
- The committee says the physics department’s “perfunctory” effort to investigate LA’s claim that Vengalattore threw a power supply at her violated University ethics policy, establishing ground two of Vengalattore’s appeal, and “the letter from [LA] should have been removed from the tenure file when [LA] lodged additional charges against [Vengalattore],” establishing ground three of Vengalattore’s appeal.
- “When [LA]’s allegation became a central issue in [Vengalattore] tenure case,” the committee said in a draft report, “the Physics Department still did not conduct a proper investigation. Failure to do so while leaving the letter in the tenure file infringed [Vengalattore]’s rights as a faculty member.”
- The committee also says Parpia and Prof. Lawrence Gibbons, physics, misled Vengalattore when they told him they would investigate the power supply allegation.
- In a meeting with Dean Jan Allen of the Graduate School to discuss grievances that relate to the tenure case, one of Vengalattore’s graduate students is told that by the dean that allegations can be tantamount to evidence: “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,” Dean Allen said. “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.’” The Sun heard a recording of this conversation.
- Ritter presents the findings of the WPLR investigation in a letter to Vengalattore. She agrees with WPLR investigators’ recommendation that Vengalattore had an inappropriate relationship with LA, though Ritter added that, in her view, there was not enough evidence to find Vengalattore guilty on the sexual assault charge.
- “The WPLR report found no evidence of a sexual assault against the student,” the judge noted.
- Ritter also finds Vengalattore guilty of lying: “Given the finding of an inappropriate relationship, I also find that in your denial of a sexual relationship you have lied to the investigators in this case,” Ritter wrote. “I intend to impose significant sanctions on you.”
- Prof. Vengalattore denies any sort of romantic or sexual encounter with LA. Clermont — the law professor who is an expert on legal procedure — told The Sun that Ritter’s “finding of an inappropriate relationship” came “after an incredibly exhaustive investigation” that yielded “a telling absence of direct proof of a romantic relationship, such as e-mails, texts, or witnesses.”
- Ritter also said she would “suspend the imposition of any sanctions pending the outcome of your tenure appeal.”
- In court, the dean said she “implemented a number of sanctions immediately. In particular, I prohibited Professor Vengalattore from attending any professional conferences that [LA] planned to attend.”
- Vengalattore ascribed an ulterior motive to Ritter’s initial claim of withholding of sanctions: By declining to charge him, the professor said, Ritter was preventing Vengalattore from having a hearing to present evidence and contest the charges. To this point, Vengalattore had not had a hearing on any of the charges levelled against him by LA, he claims.
- A judge later said that, “If upon review, the Provost had brought charges in order to impose sanctions, Professor Vengalattore would have been entitled to a hearing.”
- Ritter, University counsel and the physics department challenge the tenure appeals committee’s draft report. As part of the challenge, the University submits a full response to the draft report.
- After Vengalattore requests the University’s response be given to him so he can respond to it, the following exchange occurred, per a recording obtained by The Sun.
CHAIR: I just want to let you know that I did ask the [response] of the dean and the department and the University counsel be sent to you, and that request was denied. Okay? So, I feel constrained in what we can tell you about specific things that are in them, because we were instructed not to share those documents with you.
VENGALATTORE: Can I ask the reason why?
CHAIR: Uh, no, you can’t. Well, you can ask the question, but there’s no answer. I’m simply reporting to you what I was told, and I did not pursue the matter because I did not think it appropriate for me to pursue the matter.
- After the University’s challenge, the committee rolls back its initial finding of admissions bias, saying Vengalattore bore some of the responsibility by not successfully hiring any postdoctoral students and saying the department’s treatment of Vengalattore’s prospective applicants was not “contrary to [the department’s] normal practice.” It also found that LA’s allegations should not have been in the dossier due to the conflict of interest generated by the sexual assault allegation.
- Charged with amending the tenure review to comply with the committee’s findings, Ritter forms a new ad hoc committee to consider an appropriately redacted tenure file, one where LA’s allegations are not included.
- The committee, which an Arts and Sciences spokesperson said probably had two or three members, is unanimous: Vengalattore should receive tenure.
- Ritter overrules the committee, declining to tenure Vengalattore.
- In her letter explaining her third denial of tenure, Ritter says Vengalattore’s failure to disclose the alleged romantic relationship with LA, which Vengalattore had denied from the start, is an “unethical violation of [U]niversity policy.”
- Ritter also cites in the same letter a disputed allegation from LA that Vengalattore withheld authorship credit from her, an accusation which WPLR investigators called “an exaggeration.”
- The tenure appeals committee again reviews Ritter’s decision. Its verdict: “serious deficiencies” still remain. The committee elects to convene, as it is authorized to do under Cornell policy, “a panel of professionally qualified and not previously involved expert scholars” to review Vengalattore’s tenure application anew.
- Ritter argues in a letter to the dean of faculty, associate University Counsel Wendy Tarlow J.D. ’89 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.”
- Five months earlier, Ritter had received an email from Deputy Provost John Siciliano saying, “[I]f you disagree on the [committee’s] recommendations … the committee appears to have the power under the rules to order an independent review.”
- The decision is left to the dean of faculty, Prof. Michael Fontaine, who has to decide whether to convene the independent panel recommended by the committee or assent to Ritter’s request for an “amended process.”
- Fontaine sides with Ritter, then passes misleading information onto Vengalattore. “The appeals committee found no further issues with Dean Ritter’s determinations based on the redacted file,” he wrote in a letter to Vengalattore, when in fact the Appeals Committee had said “the case still has serious deficiencies following the actions of Dean Ritter.”
- Fontaine was right in saying that the Appeals Committee did not identify further issues with Dean Ritter’s determinations specifically, but he did conceal the committee’s true holding both that “serious deficiencies” remained in the process as a whole and that the professor’s case should go to an independent panel. Thus, Vengalattore was led to believe his appeal had been rejected when in fact it had been upheld. Fontaine did not respond to questions from The Sun sent.
- One member of the Appeals Committee, Prof. Linda Nicholson, later said the committee had upheld Vengalattore’s appeal and had assumed Fontaine would launch an independent panel. “He declined,” Nicholson wrote.
- Vengalattore asks Fontaine to see Kotlikoff before the provost makes the final decision on tenure — which was Vengalattore’s “right” under University policy, a judge later said.
- Fontaine denies the request.
- Ritter prepares a redacted dossier and sends it to Provost Kotlikoff for an additional review. She keeps out the positive Strausser report but includes the negative Gibbons report.
- Kotlikoff, in May 2016, denies Vengalattore tenure in what he likely thought was the last word on the issue.
- Kotlikoff writes in his decision that 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, documents obtained by The Sun show.
- Kotlikoff, in a later court affidavit, says only that he had not “considered any information beyond” the redacted dossier.
- Now having issued a final decision to deny him tenure, Cornell tells Vengalattore his last day of employment will be June 30, 2016. Vengalattore’s graduate students are told via email “[t]he laboratory space cannot be occupied by Professor Vengalattore, his graduate students, or undergraduate students past the terminal date of his appointment.”
- Some of these graduate students had been partners with Vengalattore for five or six years, situating their Ph.D. research in the professor’s lab, filled with millions of dollars worth of equipment. Several of these graduate students came to Vengalattore’s strong defense in interactions with administrators.
- A judge issues a temporary restraining order against the University and Ritter, 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.
- A judge vacates the University’s entire tenure review of Vengalattore, ordering it to start from scratch.
- The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opens an investigation into 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.” The opening of an OCR investigation does not imply wrongdoing, the OCR says.
May 31, 2017
- Vengalattore asks Schuyler County Court to hold the University in contempt for failing to start a new tenure review.
June 1, 2017
- The University imposes a two-week unpaid suspension on Vengalattore.
June 2, 2017
- Vengalattore shows up to work anyway.
Read a consolidated account of the tenure review process here.