UMKC chancellor suspends professor who was focus of Star’s ‘slave labor’ investigation

University of Missouri-Kansas City Professor Ashim Mitra was suspended with pay Tuesday in response to allegations published in The Star that he exploited foreign graduate students at the School of Pharmacy.

UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal announced the suspension in a meeting with The Star’s Editorial Board. Agrawal said that, if appropriate, he will take unspecified disciplinary action against Mitra at the conclusion of an ongoing internal investigation.

“We want to send a clear message to our students that they are our most important asset,” Agrawal said.

The university’s investigation of Mitra’s actions began sometime before the chancellor took over at UMKC in June, Agrawal said. But in interviews and written responses, university officials never mentioned that investigation until The Star published its story Sunday morning. That afternoon, Agrawal announced that because of The Star’s story, the university would expand its own investigation.

The Star’s reporting, when added to the evidence that the university had gathered on its own, prompted his decision to sideline Mitra, Agrawal said.

4 ashim mitra.jpg
Ashim Mitra UMKC

“It’s a judgment call on my behalf that, collectively, it’s enough that we need to suspend the person until the investigation is complete,” he said. According to university records, Mitra’s annual salary was $215,000 as of January 2018.

Mitra joined the faculty in 1994 as chairman of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division and held that post until recently. The Star found that over Mitra’s 24 years as a leader in the UMKC School of Pharmacy, he compelled his students to act as his personal servants. They hauled equipment, served food 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.

Mitra denies any wrongdoing.

However, The Star talked to nearly a dozen former students. They, like Mitra, were all from India. They said Mitra’s hints and direct threats led them to believe he would have their visas revoked if they did not comply with his demands.

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

Mridul Mukherji, another pharmacy school professor from India, is suing Mitra as well as the university and administrators. Mukherji claims he was the victim of discrimination and harassment after raising concerns in a 2014 formal complaint about Mitra’s behavior. That complaint was investigated by a university official, but only one student was interviewed. The university concluded that Mukherji’s claims could not be substantiated.

“There was never any student who stepped up and talked to us directly,” Agrawal said. “Given that, it was difficult for the institution to proceed.”

And yet former student Kamesh Kuchimanchi, who told The Star that his tasks for Mitra were “slave labor,” said that in the late 1990s he handed a written complaint to the pharmacy school dean. The dean told The Star he did not recall that complaint, and the university has no record of it.

According to allegations in Mukherji’s 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.

Agrawal said he could not explain what in the university’s complaint and investigation process might have allowed such alleged behavior, because he was not at UMKC then.

He said his goal now is to change the culture on campus so that students and faculty feel they can report bad behavior without fear of retaliation. He and UMKC Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer sent a note to students, faculty and staff Monday denouncing misconduct by faculty and inviting them to come forward with any complaints about mistreatment.

“Our faculty play a crucial role in embodying the spirit of higher learning and scholarly citizenship and instilling this spirit in the students they teach and mentor,” the note said. “It is their duty to confine the job duties of students to tasks that directly enable scholarly contributions.”

The University of Missouri system has in recent years updated its procedures for how such complaints are to be handled.

“There is a good structure in place,” Agrawal said. “What we need to work on is culture. “

He said the university plans to meet with pharmacy students to hear concerns they might have and to reiterate UMKC’s intentions.

“We are going to build a culture of family where we take care of one another,” Agrawal said.

Related stories from Kansas City Star