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UMKC widens investigation after Star found professor used his students as servants

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."

The University of Missouri-Kansas City will expand an inquiry into a School of Pharmacy professor in response to The Star’s investigative report Sunday revealing allegations that the professor had coerced students to perform personal favors for years.

In a statement Sunday afternoon to students, faculty and staff, Chancellor Mauli Agrawal said: “Once our fact-finding is complete, we will take any and all disciplinary action as necessary.”

The Star reported Sunday that for decades Professor Ashim Mitra directly and indirectly threatened students pursuing their doctorate degrees so that they felt compelled to watch his dog, water his plants and act as waiters and busboys at events put on by his Indian cultural group.

Mitra, who is an Indian immigrant, made the demands exclusively of Ph.D. candidates from India here on student visas. Some of those students told The Star that they performed the work because Mitra, who had brought the university millions of dollars in research grants, had the power to force them out of school — meaning they would lose their visas. Mitra denied making such threats.

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Ashim Mitra UMKC

Mridul Mukherji, another pharmacy school professor from India, is suing Mitra as well as the University of Missouri Board of Curators, the dean of the pharmacy school and a former administrator. Mukherji claims he was the victim of discrimination and harassment after raising concerns in a 2014 formal complaint about Mitra’s behavior.

In his statement, Agrawal wrote that he became aware of Mukherji’s complaint when he arrived as chancellor earlier this year. He said the complaint could not be substantiated at the time due to a lack of corroborating witnesses.

But in Sunday’s statement, Agrawal revealed that UMKC was still investigating claims against Mitra, saying the university would “be reviewing The Star’s report and expanding our own investigation into any new claims as well as continuing investigations we already have underway.”

He called the treatment of students described in The Star “highly concerning and disappointing.

“... Our goal is to always provide a safe and respectful environment for our students staff and faculty.”

He also said the university will launch a review of all its processes for handling complaints “to ensure that they are aligned with the intent of our policies and result in full and thorough investigations.”

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UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal File photo

In an interview with The Star during its investigation, UMKC Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer said the university had recently improved procedures for investigating complaints against faculty.

She said that last year, the University of Missouri System, which also includes campuses in Columbia, Rolla and St. Louis, adopted new Standards of Faculty Conduct. Its five single-spaced pages go into far more detail than ever before on faculty behavior.

The document says faculty must “avoid exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of students.”

Star reporters reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents, listened to secret recordings provided by Mukherji and talked to nearly a dozen students who had worked in Mitra’s lab. Students confirmed they had done menial labor for the professor. The most vocal student, interviewed over several sessions, labeled Mitra’s actions “slave labor.”

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