Yogesh Patil with his advisor Prof. Mukund Vengalattore in their lab in 2015.

June 19, 2018

International Student’s Ph.D. Withheld After Title IX Complaint Accuses Him of ‘Retaliatory’ Publication of Information

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A Cornell graduate student’s trek toward his Ph.D. hit an abrupt stop when on May 24 — just three days before he was slated to graduate — the University notified him that his degree is being withheld due to a Title IX complaint against him.

The student, Yogesh Patil, had been pursuing a physics Ph.D. for seven years before successfully submitting and defending his thesis this spring. Anticipating graduation, Patil’s family members travelled thousands of miles, from India and Australia, only to find their graduate’s degree on hold by the University’s Office of the Judicial Administrator.

The complaint was lodged by a former physics Ph.D. student who previously accused Patil’s advisor Prof. Mukund Vengalattore, physics, of sexual assault. (The Sun has previously withheld and continues to withhold the student’s name because of the nature of that case, and instead is using the same pseudonym, LA, employed by Judge Richard Rich in public New York State court documents.) LA is not accusing Patil of sexual misconduct himself; instead, she is alleging that he retaliated against her for making a “good faith” sexual misconduct report – presumably against Vengalattore – according to Title IX documents reviewed by The Sun

LA said in her Title IX complaint against Patil that his retaliation consisted in publishing content related to her complaint on a Google site. Patil denies owning or operating the website, and he denies her specific allegation. When asked why she feels the web content constitutes retaliation, LA did not reply.

The website, which mentions LA by name at least once, claims “Cornell has acted in bad-faith and against Prof. Vengalattore and his research group” during a complicated tenure review process in which the professor was (in chronological order) approved for tenure by his department, denied tenure by administration, deemed entitled to a fresh tenure review by a judge, denied tenure by his department in that fresh review and, most recently, deemed not entitled to a new tenure review by a New York State appeals court. The tenure review is relevant here because Vengalattore believes that unsubstantiated, untrue and bad faith allegations by LA unfairly soiled his chances at tenure.

Details of those allegations have emerged on the Google site in question, but LA’s Title IX complaint against Patil singles out as retaliatory only information “obtained in the course of a Policy 6.4 investigation conducted by Workforce Policy and Labor Relations”. Four pages on the website that contain audio clippings and links to documents are identified as containing such information, but no further specification of what lines or quotes LA finds retaliatory is given.

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LA’s complaint does not mention which “Policy 6.4 investigation conducted by [WPLR]” she participated in, although it may be a 2015 WPLR investigation into her two sexual-misconduct-related accusations against Vengalattore: that he sexually assaulted her and had an inappropriate romantic relationship with her in 2010 and 2011.

The WPLR office, which handles Title IX complaints against faculty and staff, dismissed the misconduct allegation against Vengalattore on a procedural ground — the allegation was made too long after the alleged sexual encounter — though Gretchen Ritter ’83, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, who reviewed the 63-page WPLR report, said there was insufficient evidence to find Vengalattore responsible for assault.

The WPLR office did, however, find that Vengalattore and LA probably had an inappropriate romantic relationship which would have been prohibited under the University’s consensual relationships policy at the time. Vengalattore denies any romantic or sexual relationship with LA.

Details of this investigation emerged in court documents — some of these details and documents are on the website at issue — during a lawsuit in which Vengalattore accused the University of treating him unfairly in the course of his tenure review. Vengalattore initially prevailed in that suit, but his victory was overturned on March 30 by the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in the Third Judicial Department. Vengalattore’s employment with Cornell ends June 30, University senior media relations officer John Carberry told The Sun.

“This student has made about 17 allegations against me ranging from allegations of plagiarism, to abuse, to assault, to ‘sexual harassment’ by omitting her middle initial in the author list [of a paper],” Vengalattore wrote in an email, seen by The Sun, to a colleague.

“[T]hese complaints have been weaponized to deny my tenure, to harass my students, and most recently, to withhold Yogesh’s degree,” Vengalattore continued. “So far, we have provided hundreds of pages of documented evidence that each of these complaints are frivolous and false.”

Patil’s case must be resolved before he may be awarded his degree, University policy suggests, and if he loses the case, he could be expelled.

“Degrees will not be awarded to the respondent while a Formal Complaint under these procedures is pending,” University Policy 6.4, “Prohibited Bias, Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual and Related Misconduct,” states.

A temporary notation will be made to a student’s transcript once the Formal Complaint has been made, and “these temporary notations may not be appealed and will be removed upon resolution of the underlying matter,” the policy states.

Patil is a citizen of India and is in the United States on a student visa. He told The Sun he is asking lawyers how long he will be able to stay in the United States if he is unable to find a job as the Title IX Office, led by Acting Title IX Coordinator Kareem Peat, carries out its investigation.

Patil had been planning to sue Cornell for his degree, but he balked when he learned that a lawsuit could amount to $50,000 to $75,000 in legal fees, according to emails seen by The Sun. He has since started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, which has raised over $5,700 of its $75,000 goal since its launch a week ago.

“I look forward to moving out of this poisonous environment with my hard-earned PhD, so that I may finally focus solely on the science,” he wrote on GoFundMe.

Patil holds a B.Tech with honors from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, India’s highest-ranked engineering university, according to his LinkedIn page. Patil appears to be a talented student: Though he chose to stay until 2018, Patil had already published enough by June 2016 to earn his Ph.D. by the end of the summer, according to a June 10, 2016 email from the department chair. Patil is also first author on two papers published in the prestigious Physical Review Letters journal, and he is second author on another.

Patil is soliciting outside support from former Cornell physics professor Keith Schwab, now at the California Institute of Technology, asking him to mobilize the physics community both to help fund his lawsuit and to appeal to Cornell President Martha E. Pollack.

Schwab has emailed over 20 physics professors at leading universities seeking support for Patil. Asked how this email was received, Schwab told The Sun that Patil’s cause “has support and emails are circulating.”

Schwab also plans to write a letter to senior administrators at Cornell and members of the Board of Trustees to make them aware of the action against Patil.

“I don’t think they have the right to abuse a Ph.D. student like this and I think they are allowing an abuse of the Title IX system,” Schwab wrote in his email to the physics community.

LA, through an attorney, declined to comment on this story.