Court Vacates a Tenure Denial by Cornell University

Court vacates a tenure denial by Cornell, finding that the university denied basic due process over allegations that were rejected or never proven. Supporters say an important researcher is having his career stymied.

By Colleen Flaherty | Inside Higher Ed

Professors dispute negative tenure decisions all the time, but rarely do their cases end up in court. That's because pursuing a legal case against an institution is time-consuming and costly and, most importantly, courts nearly always defer to colleges' and universities' initial judgments.

Not so, though, with an ongoing case at Cornell University. A state judge in November ruled that the university had so bungled a tenure review that he vacated the original decision against the professor in question and ordered a new one.

Half a year later, Mukund Vengalattore, assistant professor of physics, is still waiting as Cornell refuses to initiate a new review. Describing himself as something of a social pariah, with his status at the university in flux, Vengalattore isn't exactly comfortable at Cornell. Yet he wants the tenure he says he's earned.

"People avoid me in the corridors -- I'm either with students or in my office," Vengalattore said in an interview. "It's almost like Cornell is in denial of the court order. Their mentality seems to be, ‘Let's make it really hard for him to succeed, regardless of the facts, so he has to leave at some point.'"

What are the facts? It's easy to lose sight of them in the swirl of hot-button issues present in Vengalattore's case, including a sexual assault allegation and an acrimonious relationship with a key dean. Yet one thing is clear: Cornell has not budged, despite the unlikely court order.

Starting at the beginning: Vengalattore began came to Cornell in 2009, researching ultracold atomic gases. In 2012, Vengalattore and his supporters say, a graduate student left the professor's research group after privately complaining to another faculty member of angry interactions in the lab -- namely, accusing Vengalattore of throwing a piece of equipment (which Vengalattore denies).

The student allegedly dissuaded other students from working in the lab after her departure, causing those remaining in the lab to complain to the department about her conduct, in 2014. She also submitted a tenure review letter, included in Vengalattore's file, that accused him of denying her appropriate authorship on certain papers.

Unconvinced that the department would take action and investigate, Vengalattore said he would take the case to university administrators. He was allegedly advised by department leaders that this was the "nuclear option," which could negatively affect his pending tenure case.

The department nevertheless voted to award Vengalattore tenure later that year, in a lopsided vote that followed an inquiry into his mentoring abilities. According to court documents, the departed student learned of the department vote and then accused Vengalattore not just of angry conduct, but of sexually assaulting her four years earlier. She also said they had had a long-standing secret sexual relationship.

Amid the new allegations, of which Vengalattore was still unaware, Gretchen Ritter, Harold Tanner Dean of the Arts and Sciences, received his tenure file -- including the student's letter. She appointed an ad hoc committee to weigh in on Vengalattore's bid, which recommended against tenure, citing the reports of group dynamics in his lab.

Ritter then issued an initial tenure denial, but the physics department requested that a consultant be named to re-examine Vengalattore's mentoring abilities. The resultant report said that the climate had improved, but Ritter didn't change her mind. She forwarded the student's letter but not the new mentoring findings to the provost, who then forwarded them to the university's Faculty Advisory Committee on Tenure. It voted against the application, with two dissenters.

Vengalattore appealed the decision. Days later, in early 2015, he was finally informed of the allegations of rape and an inappropriate relationship against him -- months too late, according to university policy and the court. Cornell's Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations found no evidence of sexual assault and little evidence of any relationship, such as texts or messages, according to court documents, but Ritter still concluded that Vengalattore had had a relationship with the student.

The tenure appeals committee sided with Vengalattore, saying that his tenure review had been compromised by the allegations and that the student had a conflict of interest. It recommended a new review -- minus the letter from the student and with the new information on mentoring. Ritter sent the matter to another ad hoc committee, which unanimously recommended tenure.

Ritter again denied Vengalattore a promotion, however, referencing the alleged relationship, the alleged authorship dispute (which Vengalattore denies) and his unwillingness to accept "responsibility" for his actions. Again, the appeals committee found fault with the tenure process and recommended a new review to be sent directly to the provost, to include those from outside the university. That didn't happen, though. Instead, Ritter sent a retracted dossier to the provost, according to court documents.

‘We are Cornell and We Are Going to Do What We Want'

Vengalattore eventually took the matter to court. In his decision and order for a new review, Judge Richard E. Rich of Schuyler County Supreme Court said that Cornell "did not follow its own procedures and acted capriciously toward Vengalattore in that it failed to advise him first of complaints concerning his teaching style so that he could have addressed the same and taken corrective action regarding his teaching style and methods."

Further, Rich said, when "allegations of misconduct were made by a student against him involving sexual assault and an alleged romantic relationship with one of his students, these allegations were in effect used against the professor and he was not advised of the same until he filed his appeal of the tenure denial. The professor was entitled to due process and a hearing on the matter, which would establish the facts and either clear him or lead to sanctions against him."

Cornell "speaks of a level playing field but keeping the allegations secret from Vengalattore while having those allegations sour his tenure review creates anything but a level playing field and was arbitrary and capricious," Rich said. "It appears in effect as, ‘We are Cornell and we are going to do what we want.'"

Alan Sash, Vengalattore's attorney, said he'd never seen a court vacate a tenure decision in his career. Quoting Rich's "do what we want line," Sash added, "It's rare to get a statement like that from a judge, but clearly that's where the evidence leads to. … Cornell has capriciously and arbitrarily applied the tenure process here to get a preordained result."

If Vengalattore feels isolated within his department, a number of other scholars have advocated on his behalf. They include Keith Schwab, a professor of applied physics at California Institute of Technology who left a faculty position at Cornell just as Vengalattore arrived. He called Vengalattore a brilliant scholar doing cutting-edge work -- someone hired to set up an entirely new kind of research program at Cornell. Schwab agreed that wouldn't necessarily preclude his colleague from misconduct, but he expressed concern about an academic environment in which claims for which there is little to no evidence can impact a tenure decision through what seems like a back-door process.

"My take on this whole thing is that the dean didn't want anything to do with this guy who'd been tainted by sexual assault allegations," Schwab said. "If you look carefully at the court documents, Ritter is always pushing forward with the allegations and manipulating the process to deny tenure to this guy. … Yet to people outside, this guy is absolutely not a marginal tenure case. This guy is world-class."

Some of Vengalattore's graduate students have launched their own complaint with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, alleging harassment by Ritter and others over their support for the professor. They say they've been threatened that their lab access would be cut off and that the facility -- along with all their work -- might be padlocked.

The student involved in the harassment complaint declined comment.

Cornell also said it was unable to comment on an active legal case.

Just this week, Cornell sent Vengalattore an email saying he'd be suspended without pay for two weeks starting June 1 -- sanctions for his alleged transgressions. The message doesn't name specific allegations, and asked which one he thought it referred to, Vengalattore said, "That's a very good question. The short answer is I don't know."

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