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

July 4, 2018

19 Cornell Law Professors: Dismiss Title IX Complaint Against Graduate Student and Give Him His Ph.D.

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Nineteen Cornell Law School professors signed onto a letter condemning the University’s decision to withhold a student’s Ph.D. because of the “mere filing” of a Title IX complaint against him. They urged University officials to immediately dismiss the Title IX complaint — filed just three days before the physics graduate’s anticipated graduation — and to award the student, Yogesh Patil, his diploma.

The professors’ June 3 letter, sent to Cornell’s president, lead counsel and two Title IX officials, said the complaint against Patil is rife with “glaring factual errors” and, even if true, does not amount to a Title IX offense. Patil’s accuser, a woman identified as LA, says he retaliated against her for filing a Title IX complaint against Patil’s advisor, Prof. Mukund Vengalattore, by operating a website which includes information about that complaint.

“All the website did was publicly discuss a case of immense academic importance,” Prof. Kevin Clermont, law, the letter’s author, wrote. “If Yogesh is guilty of retaliation, then so is anyone who discusses Title IX proceedings at Cornell even without identifying details.”

Clermont cited the text of the Cornell policy defining retaliation — which exempts from the definition “good faith actions pursued in response to a report of prohibited conduct” — and argued that Patil’s alleged behavior meets the exemption (in addition to not meeting the actual definition). Putting up the website, the professors state, was a “‘good faith action’ to question Cornell’s treatment of his professor and to pursue his own professional self-interest so impacted by Cornell’s actions against his lab.”

“Restrained speech of this sort should not be deemed suppressible by a university,” Clermont wrote, stating also that the information contained on the website is mostly public and not confidential.

Clermont told The Sun he is unaware of further developments in the Title IX investigation, led by recently-hired lead Title IX investigator Lauren Branchini. A GoFundMe campaign started by Patil to raise money for a lawyer is still active and has raised over $9,000 of its $75,000 goal. Neither Patil nor his accuser, LA, responded to The Sun’s request for comment on the case’s progress.

Patil, whose Ph.D. has been withheld for over a month, denies owning or operating the website. He previously said in an email to a physics professor at another university that he thinks the allegations against him are themselves retaliatory — he believes that LA, his accuser, is angry with him for challenging her allegations against Vengalattore.

The law professors seem to agree: “If there was retaliation in this sequence, it was the complaint made by [LA] against Yogesh, retaliating for his actively supporting his professor’s case against Cornell, for being an honest witness against [her] during the investigations into her allegations against the professor, and for having lodged complaints against her with Cornell’s Judicial Administrator and other University officials as well as with the federal Office of Civil Rights.”

LA’s attorney did not reply to The Sun’s request for comment on this story.

The professors’ nine-paragraph, one-and-a-half page letter elicited a terse, two-sentence reply from President Martha E. Pollack’s chief of staff, Clermont told The Sun.

“On behalf of President Pollack, thank you for conveying your views and those of some of your Law School colleagues. I can assure you that the matter in question is being handled expeditiously and fairly, consistent with our published policies and procedures,” wrote Kelly Cunningham, whose full title is Chief of Staff and Special Counsel to the President.

This is not the first Title IX-related rebuke to come from law professors this year. Back in March, 23 law professors joined forces to file an amici curiae brief against Cornell, taking the University to task for, in their view, depriving a male student of his right to indirectly question his accuser in a Title IX case.

The University declined to comment on the professors’ letter.