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Professor used students as servants. UMKC knew and didn’t stop him

The case against a UMKC professor

Ashim Mitra, a longtime pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is accused of exploiting foreign students as “slave labor."
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Ashim Mitra, a longtime pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is accused of exploiting foreign students as “slave labor."

Kamesh Kuchimanchi traveled halfway across the globe to earn his Ph.D. alongside one of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s top researchers.

Ashim Mitra’s sterling reputation as a scientist wasn’t the lone draw. Like Kuchimanchi, the professor was from India, and that was a comfort. Their common bond, Kuchimanchi hoped, would make America feel more like home.

Instead, their relationship soured almost from the start, he said, because Mitra exploited that cultural kinship with students from India.

“I considered my life at UMKC nothing more than modern slavery,” Kuchimanchi said.

“Slavery” to Kuchimanchi meant bailing putrid water from Mitra’s basement after a flood and serving food at Mitra’s Indian cultural celebrations off campus.

His was not an isolated case.

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Ashim Mitra UMKC

The Star found that over Mitra’s 24 years as a leader in the UMKC School of Pharmacy, the professor compelled his students to act as his personal servants. They hauled equipment and bused tables at his social events. They were expected to tend his lawn, look after his dog and water the house plants, sometimes for weeks at a time when he and his wife were away.

The Star talked to nearly a dozen former students about Mitra’s demands. Dozens more declined to go on the record for this story.

Through Mitra’s hints and direct threats, students said they feared he would have their visas revoked if they did not comply with his demands.

The students’ complaints were corroborated by Mitra’s former colleagues, who told The Star they saw the students performing menial tasks off campus or heard their complaints. A few colleagues repeatedly told the professor his actions were improper, yet nothing changed.

According to allegations in pending litigation, the university not only knew about Mitra’s behavior, but administrators overlooked complaints for years because Mitra was among the most successful faculty members in corralling millions in research dollars for the school.

Court documents obtained by The Star show that after one colleague filed a formal complaint, the university investigated. The probe involved talking to only one student, court documents say. The official in charge now says that “in hindsight” the investigation could have been done differently.

At best, critics say, Mitra’s demands violated ethical standards and university policy. At worst, a U.S. immigration official told The Star, coerced off-campus labors would be tantamount to human trafficking.

When Kuchimanchi once told Mitra he wouldn’t be a servant, “he threatened to kick me out of the university and 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.” So he continued to do what Mitra asked.

A student who earned her doctorate at the UMKC pharmacy school in 2013, a dozen years after Kuchimanchi graduated, told The Star that students feared the repercussions if they refused Mitra.

“They were so afraid of not graduating,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that Mitra could undermine her career. “Dr. Mitra could have easily affected graduation. Everyone in the department knows how Dr. Mitra handles things. If he wants to graduate you, he would. If he wants to give you trouble, he would.”

She said students complained to one another privately. “Because he had the prestige, he could influence people. He could make things happen.”

For that reason, they were reluctant to come forward. So were most of Mitra’s pharmacy school colleagues.

But one of those colleagues, Mridul Mukherji, who is also from India, is suing Mitra and university officials. He filed two related lawsuits in Jackson County Circuit Court — one in 2016 and one in 2018. The lawsuits claim that Mitra mistreated vulnerable foreign students and that the university retaliated against Mukherji when he complained.

On Friday, Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, UMKC’s provost and executive vice chancellor, responded in writing to a series of emailed questions from The Star. She said in part: “The 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.”

However, she said: “In any situation, it can be difficult to know whether an absence of student complaints indicates that there is not a problem, or that students are reluctant to come forward.”

In an interview earlier this month, Bichelmeyer said the university had recently improved procedures for investigating complaints against faculty.

Separately, Mitra issued a statement to The Star through his attorney:

“Over the years, I have invited graduate students to my home where they have done work related to their courses of study, and at times eaten meals prepared by my wife,” he wrote. “I have not required anyone to perform chores unrelated to their studies. …

“I do not understand the suggestion that anyone was concerned with their visas being at risk. I have worked with over 60 graduate students attending UMKC on F1 (study) visas, and I am not aware of any of those students having their visa status challenged or revoked.”

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Excerpt from lawsuit filed by Mridul Mukherji against a fellow UMKC pharmacy professor, Ashim Mitra, and several university officials.

The students

Kuchimanchi, who graduated with a doctorate in pharmacology in 2001, recalled when overnight rains flooded Mitra’s home in the late 1990s. Mitra sent a car to the pharmacy lab to fetch his graduate students.

“He sent us to the basement,” Kuchimanchi said. “There was a lot of water. He told us you are going to clean it up. He handed us buckets. We spent the day bailing out the water. It was a lot of back-breaking work. It was slave labor.”

Having students work under fear of losing visa status could be “a form of human trafficking,” according to Carissa Cutrell at the Student and Exchange Visitor Program within the Department of Homeland Security. She said the department would investigate, but only if students came forward.

Some students, like Kuchimanchi, said they felt forced to do such work. Others said they volunteered when asked.

“He would request us, and we would go,” said Ganesh Bommareddy, who spent three years studying with Mitra before asking to work with another professor. He said Mitra never asked him directly but rather through other students. “Nobody put a gun to my head; I felt I had to go.”

The Star attempted to reach dozens of Mitra’s foreign students via phone, email and social media. Many did not respond. Of those who did, only a few spoke on the record, but all either knew students who performed personal services for Mitra or had been asked to do so themselves.

Kuchimanchi said Mitra often asked students to work at events sponsored by Sangam, a local group of Hindus with cultural ties to the Bengal region of India. Kuchimanchi wasn’t interested, even though it could have meant a free meal.

“He would tell us he would pick us up and take us to where everything was happening and we were told to serve the people and clean up when it was over,” Kuchimanchi said. “It was clear that no one could say no. If they said no then the next day they would be yelled at in front of the whole group. He would start finding fault with your work for no reason. He would pull you down so badly in front of all the students.”

Mitra’s requests continued for decades, from the mid-’90s to at least the mid-2010s, The Star’s investigation found. The students Mitra put to work off campus were all from India — reluctant to complain and bound by a culturally influenced silence.

Students from India are a large percentage of graduate students in UMKC’s pharmacy school and Mitra’s lab, there on student study visas awarded by the U.S. State Department on the condition they remain enrolled where they were accepted for admission.

Back in India, doing personal favors for professors was expected, students said.

“It’s a cultural thing in India. When a teacher says do something we tend to do it,” Bommareddy said. “Our culture is such a way that when a professor walks in the room, we stand.”

But U.S. universities operate under different rules, and professors are supposed to know better.

According to the American Association of University Professors, college faculty should “avoid any exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students.”

Students say Mitra realized they feared him and made improper demands of them.

“The students don’t give any complaint because they don’t want to ruin their education, their career,” said Kishore Cholkar, a California pharmaceutical company employee who graduated in 2015 and had worked closely with Mitra on a research project recently patented.

“So no student will come forward to speak against a professor. … The students will not talk because they want to make a career here and they need the immigration status. They need the professor’s support. Everybody knows it: If you stand up, you will get cut down.”

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Excerpt from lawsuit filed by Mridul Mukherji against a fellow UMKC pharmacy professor, Ashim Mitra, and several university officials.

‘The man’

Yet Mitra was a professor whom students from around the world, particularly India, were eager to have as their mentor.

After earning his doctorate at the University of Kansas, Mitra began his career at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and went on to Purdue University, where he began building his reputation as someone who excelled at convincing the government to fund his research projects. His specialty: drug treatments for eye conditions.

UMKC hired him in 1994 as chair of its Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences. There, his stature grew in concert with his many successful grant applications and patents, earning him the prestigious rank of curators’ professor. At UMKC, federal records show, Mitra would eventually secure more than $8.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health alone.

Research dollars sustain successful Ph.D. programs in the life sciences. They fund projects that lead to cures, which bring acclaim to universities. And they attract doctoral students, who gain valuable experience and get their names on published research papers.

“Mitra was the man,” said Bommareddy. “He had the largest lab in terms of space, in terms of students. He had the fancy projects, so it was prestigious to work in his lab, to say you worked on his fancy projects.” And, he said, Mitra pushed hard to prepare students to have successful careers.

In 2016, former student Sai Boddu praised Mitra this way when the professor won the University of Missouri System’s President’s Award for Sustained Career Excellence:

“Professor Mitra has made substantial contributions to several areas within the pharmaceutical sciences, and has improved the state of knowledge of ocular drug delivery.” Mitra’s innovations, he said, “have benefited millions of patients worldwide.”

What Boddu did not mention was that, before he graduated in 2010, he was one of Mitra’s regular house-sitters and dog watchers.

“It was voluntary,” Boddu wrote in an exchange of emails with The Star. After several years as a professor at the University of Toledo, Boddu recently relocated to Dubai and said he was unavailable to speak by phone.

But he did offer one more comment via email when told that some students didn’t think they had the option to refuse Mitra’s personal requests.

“Of course, everyone’s perception is different,” he wrote. “I never felt threatened in terms of losing my student visa for refusing his request.”

The Star was unable to learn whether that feeling was shared by the two Indian students who in succession took Boddu’s place as chief dog- and house-sitters.

Both men graduated in 2016. One of them did not respond to repeated requests for comment, while the other replied with a brief email and then cut off contact: “Since I don’t know you and this is obviously a sensitive issue which is sub judice I cannot go on record. I am sorry.“

Sub judice, as in a matter of litigation. The man is one of those Mukherji claimed in his initial complaint to the university was exploited by Mitra. He was only excused from dog-sitting duty, Mukherji alleges, when he got married.

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Students say that when Ashim Mitra would go out of town, he had them house sit, watch the dog and water the plants at his south Overland Park home. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

The colleagues

Home for Mitra and his wife, Ranjana, also a UMKC employee, is a large house on two acres overlooking a lake in south Overland Park.

Former UMKC pharmacy professor Jack Fincham once lived nearby and recalls during his years at the university — 2007 to 2014 —seeing UMKC grad students from India working in Mitra’s yard when he drove past.

“It was a common thing to see,” Fincham said. “They were there with rakes and mowers and other yard utensils.”

It didn’t surprise him. He’d heard the rumors and found Mitra’s treatment of students “totally inappropriate” but knew better than to complain and face the ire of UMKC leadership.

“You would be ostracized if you raised any concerns about anything,” said Fincham, now on the faculty at Presbyterian College in South Carolina.

The Star also spoke with a professor of Indian descent from another area university who said he told Mitra repeatedly over the years that his actions were improper.

“We discussed it several times,” said the man, who asked not to be named because he feared the publicity might hurt his standing within Kansas City’s tight-knit community of Indian immigrant professionals. “It is not right to handle a student in that way.”

Another pharmacy school professor, who has since left UMKC and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said students from Mitra’s lab asked him for references to help them leave the school, saying they feared Mitra would retaliate if he knew they wanted out.

And Kansas City Kansas Community College professor Mansoor Ansari, who was a student at the UMKC pharmacy school but not in Mitra’s lab, said: “I heard of the things he was doing. Students working. They were things that would not be unusual in India. But in America … a professor should not be able to do that. That is wrong.”

Fincham said Mitra’s demands were inappropriate even if former students now claim they were helping their professor voluntarily.

“When you look at the reporting line, students report to their professor, who has power over salaries, grades, their ability to stay at the school,” Fincham said. “It provides a professor with the power to require a student to do something this despicable, or else. But this flies in the face of what any university is there to do. Students are not at the university to be taken advantage of by someone holding power over them.”

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Excerpt from lawsuit filed by Mridul Mukherji against a fellow UMKC pharmacy professor, Ashim Mitra, and several university officials.

The investigation and lawsuit

In the fall of 2014, a faculty member in the pharmacy school finally spoke out.

“I have witnessed these things for the last 7 years,” Mridul Mukherji wrote in a formal complaint to the University of Missouri Board of Curators. “A number of these facts are well known in the School of Pharmacy, UMKC, but nobody wants to raise their voice.”

Then-UM President Tim Wolfe was copied on the email, as was Leo Morton, then UMKC’s chancellor.

“Thank you for letting us know about these issues,” Morton’s second in command, then-UMKC Provost Gail Hackett, wrote back. “I have not heard these particular concerns raised before. We will investigate.”

Mukherji had joined the pharmacy school faculty in 2007 and by the time he filed his complaint had earned tenure, providing the job security he felt would allow him to challenge his boss.

Mukherji and Mitra had been friends. But their relationship darkened after Mukherji refused to order his students to work at the cultural events both of them attended as members of Sangam.

Mukherji called out Mitra at faculty meetings for relying on his graduate students to write his many grant proposals. He told the pharmacy school dean of his concerns about the house-sitting and busboy work.

The arguments grew to the point that Mitra once called for the campus police to expel Mukherji from a faculty meeting, an incident report shows.

Mukherji’s email was not the first time university officials received a written complaint about Mitra’s treatment of students.

Kuchimanchi, the student who felt he was treated like Mitra’s slave, says in the late 1990s he delivered “a list of wrong things” to the pharmacy school dean.

“It was a very emotional thing for me,” he said. “I wrote up everything and I talked to the dean.”

But he said that after meeting with then-Dean Robert Piepho and handing him his complaint, “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.”

Reached by phone recently, Piepho, now retired as dean emeritus, said he does not recall the incident or ever getting a written complaint about Mitra from a student.

“But if I did I would not rip it up and throw it in the trash,” he said. “That just doesn’t make any sense. I would not have done that.”

And on Friday, Bichelmeyer wrote, “I do not know of a single student who has complained to UMKC officials that Dr. Mitra required them to do non-academic work.”

In Mukherji’s case, Vice Provost Denis Medeiros, who is now retired, was assigned to investigate his complaint.

Mukherji gave the university what he considered a trove of evidence to support his claims, including names of people who had complained to him about Mitra’s behavior.

He also provided minutes from a November 2011 Sangam board meeting, where members discussed students “working hard” and that they should be paid with $25 gift cards as a thank-you. Other minutes say the students were expected to work as volunteers at events in March and again in November 2012.

Mukherji also had secretly recorded his conversations with two of Mitra’s students and gave the recordings and highlighted transcripts to Medeiros — and later to The Star.

Both students acknowledged taking care of the Mitras’ dog while the couple were away.

“So when did you do (it) last time,” Mukherji asked.

“In February. When he went to India,” one student said.

Mukherji asked how long.

“Three weeks,” the student said.

The other student said he house-sat for Mitra, watched the dog and watered the plants every summer for four years.

But when Medeiros finished his investigation in December 2014, only two things came out of it:

One was Medeiros warning Mitra to stop having students house-sit and dog-sit and instead board the dog. The other, according to Mukherji: harassment.

After the investigation, Mukherji said in court documents, university officials labeled him “as crazy, a troublemaker, or a disgruntled employee.” The litigation also claims that Medeiros’ investigation was insufficient.

Recently, Medeiros was asked about that under oath, according to court records obtained by The Star. He acknowledged that he was able to speak to only one former student who’d done favors for Mitra. And he never wrote a report when he closed the books on the case that December.

“In hindsight,” he said in court records, “anything can change and do things differently.”

Medeiros is a defendant in one of Mukherji’s employment discrimination lawsuits that claim Mitra and the university mistreated him and students. Others named in the suits are the University of Missouri Board of Curators and pharmacy school Dean Russell B. Melchert.

Medeiros and Melchert declined comment through a university spokeswoman.

The first of the two lawsuits is set for trial next September.

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Ashim Mitra joined UMKC’s School of Pharmacy in 1994. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

The aftermath

Last year, the University of Missouri System adopted new Standards of Faculty Conduct affecting all four of its campuses. Its five single-spaced pages go into far more detail than ever before on faculty behavior.

Bichelmeyer, who replaced Hackett as provost in 2015, helped write the document, which says faculty must “avoid exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students.”

The policy also spells out how complaints are to be dealt with, including when and how an investigation should be conducted.

Mukherji says none of that happened with his case. He said the university sought to settle his lawsuit more than once, under the condition that he would leave the university. He refused and continues to teach and do research in the pharmacy school.

Mitra also is still teaching in the pharmacy school but, as of this year, is no longer division chair.

In an interview, Bichelmeyer said she rarely receives complaints from students about professors, and those few are mostly disputes about grades. Other than Mukherji’s lawsuit, she has heard no complaints from students who felt forced to work off campus for a professor.

“And if a student ever were compelled to do something against their will, I as provost would want the student to come forward, and I would want them to believe that I would want us to deliver on the promise of investigating that to the fullest extent possible,” Bichelmeyer said.

“And I would want the student to know that there would be no negative repercussions for them.”

On Friday, she wrote: “UMKC, in no uncertain terms, does not tolerate any abuse of students in any way, shape or form. When a report is substantiated, the violator is subject to discipline.”

Kuchimanchi, who now works for a pharmaceutical firm in Boston, said no university official ever contacted him about his complaint against Mitra. In his six years studying in Mitra’s lab, no one stepped in to thwart his professor’s demands.

Kuchimanchi left town 16 years ago. “I told myself I would never set foot back in Kansas City again,” he said.

But he did return this spring, to give a deposition for Mukherji’s lawsuit.

“I write it off as a chapter of horrors in my life.”

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