Cornell University and a high-powered dean at the school face being held in contempt of court in a case stemming from their decision to deny tenure to a physics professor.
Assistant professor Mukund Vengalattore told Retraction Watch he believes the school and the dean are violating a judge’s order instructing them to completely redo his tenure review process. Neither the university nor the dean has done any of the things the judge asked them to do, and even suspended his paycheck for the first two weeks of June, he said.
In 2014 Gretchen Ritter, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, denied Vengalattore tenure, citing a weak publication record, an inability to accept advice from colleagues, and a poor group dynamic fostered in his lab [Exhibit C in this court document]. But on appeal, a faculty panel found that the review process had been affected by sexual misconduct allegations from a former graduate student. Vengalattore told Retraction Watch the allegations were “completely false.”
However, last year, Ritter again denied Vengalattore tenure, a decision backed by Cornell’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff. As first reported by Inside Higher Ed in May, Vengalattore then took Cornell and Ritter to court. Judge Richard Rich ruled on that case in November, finding that the alleged misconduct “tainted” the process and that the school had deviated from its established procedures in a “necessary” but “secretive” way, denying Vengalattore due process:
It appears in effect as, we are Cornell and we are going to do as we want, which seems to the court as the essence of being arbitrary and capricious.
The judge vacated the decision to deny tenure and ordered Cornell to conduct a de novo review.
In May, Vengalattore’s attorney filed court documents motioning to hold Cornell and Ritter in contempt:
[Cornell and Ritter] have done little, if anything, to move [Vengalattore’s] tenure review process forward…It has now been more than six months since Judge Rich issued his order and directed [Cornell and Ritter] to comply with it.
According to Vengalattore’s affidavit:
The Court held that I “was entitled to due process and a hearing on the matter, which would either clear [me] or lead to sanctions against [me]” … To date, [Cornell and Ritter have] not provided me with a hearing…Instead they continue to ignore the November 23rd Order and unilaterally docked my pay from June 1, 2017 through June 15, 2017 based upon the above allegations without ever holding the required hearing as directed.
At the hearing, scheduled for July 28 in Watkins Glen, N.Y., about 25 miles from Cornell’s Ithaca, N.Y., campus, the university and Ritter will have the chance to explain themselves.
Callan Stein, an attorney at Donoghue Barrett & Singal, who has defended researchers accused of misconduct, told Retraction Watch that Cornell is likely to provide at least some defense at the hearing:
I wouldn’t expect them to violate a court order for no reason. There are defenses to allegations of contempt. You can argue “we did comply,” but based on [Vengalatorre’s] affidavit, it sounds like they did not.
According to court documents, Vengalattore’s promotion was contentious even at the departmental level, where he squeaked through on a vote that was far from unanimous. A faculty committee and — eventually, Cornell’s provost — both supported Ritter by recommending against promoting Vengalattore. On appeal, Ritter and the provost made the same determination.
In a January letter to the judge, Cornell’s attorney Thomas D’Antonio, of Ward Greenberg Heller & Reidy, wrote that Ritter planned to pursue sanctions against Vengalattore for the sexual misconduct allegations.
Stein told us that Cornell and Ritter have several options in what they tell the judge:
One is that they had a “good faith” inability to comply. Theoretically, although I have no information about it, they could argue they did not have ability to comply within the time frame.
This defense relies upon being able to draw a distinction between being unable to comply and refusing to do so, Stein told us:
If they want to assert that, they would bear burden of proving it. Speaking generally, with no knowledge of case, that could be a potentially fruitful argument for Dean Ritter.
But if she can’t convince the court she’s complying with the order, there’s a chance she could face fines or even incarceration, though “the latter would be very surprising,” Stein said:
Courts have fairly broad powers to sanction, but that seems to be a harsh penalty here.
Cornell, as an institution, is in a little different position, Stein said:
One argument they could make is, “We need more time.” It seems they’ve had some time but that’s still available.
While the judge doesn’t have to act right away, Stein said it’s possible that Cornell and Ritter will have to offer up a satisfactory defense or face sanctions:
The judge will want to know why they did not adhere to court order.
It wouldn’t surprise me if ruling was made [at the hearing].
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