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.