He was days away from receiving his Ph.D. in physics, his thesis having been successfully defended. His family was traveling from his native India to beautiful Ithaca, New York, to be there for the ceremony. And why shouldn’t they, as this was a huge achievement and a glorious day for Yogesh Patil and his family? Except there was a more important value at stake for Cornell University than Patil’s degree.
The complaint was lodged by a former physics Ph.D. student who previously accused Patil’s advisor Prof. Mukund Vengalattore, physics, of sexual assault.
Was Patil accused of some sexual misconduct as well? Hardly.
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.
Among the words so malleable as to be rendered meaningless, retaliation is added to the list.
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.
Did Patil, on behalf of an accused physics prof, go after LA, attack her, discredit her, in the manner of, say, Judith Butler? Nope, not even that, which might be considered an exercise of free speech (and, for the unwashed, Cornell is partially a state land-grant university).
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.
Yogesh Patil’s offense was defending a professor who was fighting for his career, his tenure, which was being denied him because of the allegations (and the generic atmosphere on campus). The allegations were dismissed as untimely, and determined to be unfounded.** The allegations nonetheless were being used to deny Vengalattore tenure. And Patil was fighting for this prof he supported.
To the extent LA was involved at all, it was tangential. It was her false claims that gave rise to the denial of tenure to a prof who otherwise would have been welcomed with open arms. But in LA’s mind, this was twisted into retaliation, something all about her even though it was all about her victim, Vengalattore. And that gave rise to her new victim, Yogesh Patil.
“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 “offense” was defending his professor, and he, apparently, is merely collateral damage in LA’s war against Vengalattore. But to Patil and his family, Cornell’s refusal to confer his earned degree is a stand-alone problem of some great significance.
“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.
In the interim, Patil has some additional burdens beyond awaiting the outcome of LA’s complaint. As an Indian citizen here on a student visa, he doesn’t get to hang around until the University gets around to deciding his case. And as a student, he lacks the wherewithal to fight the case, to retain counsel to challenge the denial of his degree and his being used by LA as a pawn in her war against Vengalattore.
Does LA care? Don’t be silly. Does Cornell care? Only about not putting itself in the line of #MeToo fire. Fortunately, physics scholars aren’t as inclined to hand-wringing as gender studies scholars.
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.”
Bear in mind that Patil isn’t accused of conduct remotely sexual, but merely defending his professor from denial of tenure for false allegations. Is that retaliation under Title IX? Apparently all it takes is for LA to say it is, and that’s good enough for Cornell University to deny Yogesh Patil his earned physics degree.
Update: A letter to the editor from a sociology Ph.D. candidate taking the Cornell Daily Sun to task for getting its facts straight, and thus creating a biased tone.
Precise language and attention to tone accurately communicate written information. This article contains accolades and opinions about the accused student’s academic status (“Patil appears to be a talented student”). The heavy-handed language and disproportionate attention given to the problems he and his family are facing seem to indirectly blame the student who filed the complaint (LA) while portraying Patil as the singular victim. I recognize that LA declined to comment on this story leaving The Sun with little information to include from her perspective, however, this tone amplifies Patil’s obstacles over any potential retaliation faced by LA.
Perhaps a physics Ph.D. is a more rigorous course of study than sociology?
*The Cornell Daily Sun includes a parenthetical to explain the use of “LA”:
(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.)
This would be uncontroversial but for the fact that Prof. Vengalattore was found not to have engaged in misconduct. His name having been tainted without cause can’t be undone. Her name, nonetheless, remains concealed.
Edit Update: I’ve since learned her name is Lauren Aycock. Notwithstanding the Sun’s decision not to use her name, I can see no reason why her name, as opposed to Vengalattore’s and Patil’s, should be concealed.
**The Cornell Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations found that the consensual relationship between Vengalattore and LA was “probably” inappropriate under their “consensual relationships” policy. While Vengalattore denies any romantic or sexual relationship, it’s notable that they have a “consensual relationships” policy at all.