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Lily Croskey-Englert / Sun Staff Photographer

August 29, 2017

Judge Declines to Hold University in Contempt; Professor Demands Tenure Review Start Immediately

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Cornell University is not being held in contempt of court for its actions in a professor’s tenure review, a Schuyler County judge ruled last week.

Judge Dennis J. Morris said Cornell has not clearly violated a November 2016 order to reconsider Prof. Mukund Vengalattore’s, physics, tenure application.

In that November order, which Cornell plans to appeal, Schuyler County Judge Richard Rich vacated the University’s decision to deny the professor’s application for tenure. The professor’s initial tenure review — a process the judge described as “flawed, secretive, unfair” — included several arbitrary departures from University policy, the judge said, so he ordered Cornell to start a new one.

By late May, after unsuccessful settlement negotiations, Cornell had not done so. Unable to find consensus with the University, the professor sued, asking Schuyler County Court to hold the University in contempt for not following the November order.

Morris declined and aimed to clarify the November order. He identified six mandates specifying how the new tenure review should be carried out, but none specifying when the new tenure review must start. Because the new tenure review itself has not begun, the judge said in part, Cornell could not have violated the court’s November orders.

“We are gratified that the judge agreed with Cornell’s position and have never had any doubt that Cornell has fully complied with all court orders,” Joel Malina, vice president for University relations, told The Sun.

Two days after Morris’s decision, Vengalattore’s attorney Alan Sash asked a Cornell attorney, Wendy Tarlow, to start “forthwith” the new, court-ordered tenure review. Sash also asked Tarlow to initiate a faculty grievance procedure against Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Gretchen Ritter ’83.

Cornell maintains that it is “complying with the order affording Professor Vengalatorre [sic] a de novo tenure review and has been involved in that process for some time.” Vengalattore disagrees, telling The Sun that “questions to [his] department chair about the new review have been completely ignored.”

“The current department chair said he does not know how these [questions] will be addressed, and has been given no instructions by Ritter or the counsel,” Vengalattore told The Sun.

Prof. Eanna Flanagan, physics, the department chair, did not immediately respond to The Sun’s requests for comment.

Yet the case was not a total loss for the professor. Judge Morris upheld a portion of the November order requiring that Cornell allow him to update his tenure dossier with recent scholarship and evidence.

The University objected to reopening the dossier, claiming that doing so would be unfair to other tenure applicants. The judge said the University’s argument “only holds water if tenure determination are [sic] solely gauged on a quantitative basis.” He added, “One hopes that majority [sic] of the review is of a qualitative nature.”

The professor, a specialist in atomic, molecular and optical physics, said the decision to keep his dossier open was a key win in the case.

“We got almost everything we wanted,” Vengalatorre said, celebrating his reinforced ability to supplement the tenure dossier and to challenge a finding by University officials that he had an inappropriate relationship with a student. The University said in court that the professor would have the right to formally challenge the finding, which the professor claims he had already been trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to do.

Vengalattore vigorously objects to the finding, calling it “nonsense” and alleging that Cornell investigators Alan Mittman and Sarah Affel did not treat him fairly throughout their investigation of the matter.

With equal vigor, Cornell maintains the fairness of its investigation.

“The 63-page [investigative] report, supported by over 1,200 pages of documents in three separate appendices, including 26 witness statements and multiple statements by the immediate parties to the complaint that initiated the investigation, speaks for itself,” Malina said.

But perhaps the harshest condemnation of the investigation has come not from Vengalattore himself.

Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, an expert on legal procedure, wrote a scathing, publicly available letter to University Counsel Madelyn Wessel denouncing the investigation, calling it “so outrageous as to leave me ashamed of Cornell.” Now in his 43rd year as a law professor, Clermont admonished Wessel “to set the administrators and counsel straight” and to vacate the finding of a relationship.

Malina said that Cornell “certainly do[es] not agree with Professor Clermont’s characterizations of facts or with his partisan claims that Cornell has committed legal violations in this matter.”

“To any objective person, substantive justice has been denied in that case,” Clermont told The Sun in response. “[That] case is one where the investigative report doesn’t strike me as being written by neutral people.”

But Cornell maintained its position.

“The fact that Professor Clermont may personally disagree with the outcome does not, in our view, undermine the integrity of the report or the fairness and rigor of the processes used to develop it,” Malina said.

Vengalattore asked the court to expunge the investigation’s finding of misconduct from his dossier, but the court declined.

  • Zach

    Clermont’s letter and that idiot Malina’s response exemplifies what Cornell has become — a corrupt, dysfunctional organization where beancounters and career bureaucrats like Gretchen Ritter drag Cornell from one public debacle to another, and then hire more administrators and mouthpieces to belittle their own faculty when they voice their concerns.

    If Cornell is happy with the fairness of the investigation, why did the professor have to go to court to fight for his right to challenge the investigation? And when a legal expert like Clermont examines the report and says that there is no evidence of misconduct and that no reasonable person would have adjudged the professor guilty of inappropriate behavior, what exactly does that say about Ritter? Of course the report wasn’t written by neutral people. For neutral and rational people, a 1200 page report with dozens of interviews and statements that failed to uncover any evidence of inappropriate conduct can only mean one thing … not guilty. In contrast, for bureaucrats like Ritter, evidence or facts are a nuisance that get in the way of what is most convenient for them.

    It will be a good day for Cornell when Ritter is kicked out of campus.

    • A&S Faculty

      ‘Bean-counters’ is right on the money.

      Legal expert : This investigation reaches the stratosphere of injustice.
      Admins : We don’t care.
      Legal expert : No direct proof, emails, texts or witnesses, after an incredibly exhaustive investigation.
      Admins : We wrote 1200 pages and we are really proud of ourselves.
      Legal expert : He wasn’t allowed to supplement the record, challenge credibility, or get a hearing before neutrals.
      Admins : All of that would get in the way of our story.
      Legal expert : This is so outrageous I am ashamed of Cornell.
      Admins : Too bad.

      Maybe Clermont’s mistake was to phrase his letter in polite, grown-up language.
      Ritter, Malina etc – if you are reading this, let me help you out by translating. When a professor of law says ‘A reasonable person would not find guilt, even by a preponderance, unless that person made the amateurish mistake of ignoring the probative value of the absence of direct evidence after an incredibly exhaustive investigation’, it means, ‘Dum Dum Ritter made big boo boo.’ Hope that helps.

      From the documents on his website, this harassment has been going on since 2014! This guy seems to have the patience of a glacier. I wish he would just take the gloves off and sue these bastards for millions in as public a manner as possible. That’s the only language beancounters understand. I think he will find a lot of support among A&S faculty who’ve had enough of Ritter’s shenanigans. Also, I can hardly be the only one in A&S who feels Cornell physics has been begging for a public shaming for several years.