A former Cornell University professor who faced a sexual misconduct allegation is suing the university, the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
In the lawsuit, Mukund Vengalatorre, a former assistant professor of physics, claims the university mishandled an investigation into the allegation as well as his tenure review process.
The suit states he was discriminated against based on his gender and his Indian national origin.
Vengalattore is suing for damages. He is suing Cornell on the grounds of Title IX and Title VI, violation of due process and defamation.
The lawsuit Vengalattore has filed is his second against the university. In June 2016, he filed a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court, which sided with him, before a state appellate court overturned its decision five months ago.
Because he was denied tenure and his contract expired in the summer, Vengalattore is no longer employed, said Caleb Kruckenberg, an attorney for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Vengalattore.
The Department of Education is being sued because of mandatory guidance it issued in 2011 that Cornell implemented, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit shows eight counts against DeVos and the Department of Education alleging they violated the Administrative Procedure Act and one count alleging they violated the spending clause.
New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Washington D.C., took on the case because its work consists of opposing administrative overreach, Kruckenberg said.
The sexual misconduct claim came from a graduate student Vengalattore supervised in his lab. Vengalattore has denied the claim.
Kruckenberg said the people who investigated the claim were the same as those who argued for the accuser and ultimately judicated the case.
During the investigation, Vengalattore was uninformed as to what claims investigators were probing into despite his request for information, Kruckenberg said.
“He was never given an opportunity to defend himself,” Kruckenberg said.
Cornell’s handling of the investigation adhered to Department of Education policies that were instituted in 2011, Kruckenberg said. The attorney said the policies lead to more outcome-focused results, whereas before there were complaints the accused were “given too much process.”
DeVos was not secretary of education in 2011 and has rescinded the 2011 guidance letter and replaced it with an Interim Q & A while the department is working to regulate on Title IX.
“This interim guidance will help schools as they work to combat sexual misconduct and will treat all students fairly,” DeVos said in a September 2017 press release. “Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
Because of Cornell’s handling of the investigation and the Department of Education’s policies at the time, Kruckenberg argues Vengalattore never received due process because he did not receive a fair hearing.
“It’s easier to find the accused responsible,” Kruckenberg said. “This lawsuit is a great example of the abuses that come up because of the Department of Education and its policies.”
Gretchen Ritter, then-dean of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, affirmed and reaffirmed her decision to deny Vengalattore’s promotion request. Provost Michael Kotlikoff accepted the negative tenure determination in May 2016.
“We also find, unlike Supreme Court, that neither the sexual misconduct allegations raised by the graduate student nor her May 2014 letter improperly influenced the tenure decision,” the decision stated.
Although the claim against the Vengalattore may have been discussed during the tenure review process, decision stated, “the record of evidence indicates that such allegations did not factor into the final tenure decision.”
The decision “unequivocally vindicates Dean Ritter, who the court found carefully adhered to university policy while navigating a complex tenure matter fairly, appropriately and with good judgment,” said Joel Malina, Cornell’s vice president for university relations, following the announcement of the decision. “The decision today also affirms principles of great importance to institutions of higher education in New York, particularly the judicial deference properly afforded academic institutions in tenure and promotion decisions.”
Cornell University declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Kruckenberg said the university and the Department of Education have not responded to the lawsuit so far.
Elizabeth Hill, press secretary for the Department of Education, declined to comment on the pending litigation.