Indian prof in US said to treat his Indian students like servants. College did nothing

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An investigation by The Kansas City Star reveals that for two decades, Dr Ashim Mitra would make scholars carry heavy equipment, tend his lawn & sit his dog.

New Delhi: An Indian professor has allegedly been treating his Indian Ph.D. students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) like personal servants for two decades, and the school has done nothing to stop him.

A detailed investigation by The Kansas City Star, a local newspaper, revealed that Dr Ashim Mitra, a reputed faculty member at the UMKC School of Pharmacy with over 24 years of experience, would frequently make Indian scholars working under him carry his heavy equipment, serve food and water at cultural festivals, tend his lawn, and sometimes even sit his dog and care for his house-plants for weeks at a time, when he was away with his wife.

File image of Ashim Mitra | pharmacy.umkc.edu
File image of Ashim Mitra | pharmacy.umkc.edu

“I considered my life at UMKC nothing more than modern slavery,” scholar Kamesh Kuchimanchi told the newspaper, adding that one of the biggest disincentives against speaking out against Mitra was the fear that he might “force me to lose my visa and lose everything”.

“That was his ammo. Either fall in line or you would be thrown out. You didn’t want to be in that situation where you have to go back home empty-handed,” Kuchimanchi said.

‘It’s a cultural thing’

The other big obstacle to reporting Mitra was ‘being Indian’.

Mitra allegedly exploited more than just his position at the university. He also leveraged his place as an esteemed member of the tight-knit Indian community in Kansas City. Indians constitute a large percentage of students at UMKC’s pharmacy school. They come to Mitra’s lab in particular because they seek a certain kinship and a sense of belonging.

Instead, the traditional Indian teacher-student relationship further worsened the situation, the students allege.

“It’s a cultural thing in India. When a teacher says ‘do something’, we tend to do it,” said Ganesh Bommareddy, a former scholar under Mitra who requested a change after three years. “Our culture is such that when a professor walks in the room, we stand.”

 

Mitra’s ability to earn research grants worth millions of dollars for the school — and projects that led to substantial contributions in the pharmaceutical sciences — resulted in university administrators overlooking complaints against him for years.

Mitra secured more than $8.5 million dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health while at the UMKC.

Formal complaints

In the two decades that he was allegedly exploiting students, only one of Mitra’s colleagues came forward to formally complain against him — Mridul Mukherji, a fellow Indian professor. But nothing came of it — the ensuing investigation was a mere formality.

Mukherji’s was also not the first complaint that the university received against Mitra.

Kuchimanchi told the paper that he delivered “a list of wrong things” to the then-pharmacy school dean Robert Piepho in the late 1990s.

But right after the meeting, “I turned around to close the door and saw him crunch it up and throw it in the trash can, and I didn’t have a copy”, Kuchimanchi added.

When approached by the paper, Piepho denied the incident ever took place.

Mukherji has filed two lawsuits in the Jackson County Circuit Court — against Mitra in 2016 for his mistreatment of students, and against UMKC in 2018 for “discriminatory and retaliatory behaviour” against him by university officials. The 2016 lawsuit is set for trial next September.

 

Where did all this lead?

Mukherji told the paper that the university tried to get him to settle his lawsuit more than once, under the condition that he would quit UMKC. Mukherji resisted, and still teaches in the pharmacy school. As does Mitra. However, he is no longer division chair as of 2018.

On its part, the UMKC insists that Mukherji’s complaint “was looked into, repeated efforts were made to contact all students identified by Dr Mukherji, but no students substantiated the claims, and no formal action could be taken under the university’s policies and regulations that were in place at the time.”

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