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UMKC professor resigns amid investigation he used students as ‘slave labor’

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 professor accused of exploiting foreign graduate students at the School of Pharmacy has resigned, two months after a Kansas City Star report revealed his alleged mistreatment of students.

University officials told the pharmacy school in an email Wednesday afternoon that Ashim Mitra resigned — one day before a final hearing was set to determine his future with UMKC.

The email, signed by School of Pharmacy Dean Russell B. Melchert, said that while the university had been investigating Mitra, it “learned of additional complaints about Dr. Mitra from former students who told the Kansas City Star that they were pressured into performing menial chores for Dr. Mitra at his home” while they were students in his lab at UMKC.

Mitra had been put on paid suspension by the university in November after The Star reported that former graduate students from India said the professor coerced them to do his lawn work, care for his dog, serve at social gatherings and perform other menial tasks. One of Mitra’s former students, Kamesh Kuchimanchi, called the work “slave labor.” Students told The Star they feared they would be forced to leave the university or lose their visas if they did not comply.

Wednesday’s email said Mitra was suspended as part of the university’s Standard of Faculty Conduct process and “to assure that he would have no further contact with students.”

“As I have stated unequivocally, UMKC does not tolerate misconduct,” Chancellor Mauli Agrawal said in a statement released later Wednesday. “We investigate reports of misconduct and, when a report is substantiated, the violator is subject to discipline.”

That standard, Agrawal said, “applies to all faculty, regardless of title or rank, regardless of how much donor or external funding they bring in.” He also noted, “The vast majority of faculty are sincerely dedicated to the success and well-being of students and UMKC.”

As part of the terms of Mitra’s resignation, he must give up his tenure status immediately, remain off campus unless authorized and have no contact with students.

“We now consider Dr. Mitra’s employment status a closed issue,” said John Martellaro, university spokesman. However, he said the university will continue “examining matters stemming from this situation, such as our complaint-handling procedures.”

Neither Mitra nor his attorney immediately responded to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon. But previously in emailed statements to The Star, Mitra denied any wrongdoing.

“I feel that probably the time has come for him to face the truth,” Kuchimanchi said after hearing about Mitra’s resignation. Kuchimanchi graduated with a doctorate in pharmacology in 2001 and now works for a pharmaceutical firm in Boston. “Hopefully this brings closure to everything and the university can move on.”

Agrawal said that before he became chancellor in June, the university had begun investigating Mitra’s actions. In October, the university launched formal disciplinary action against Mitra, Wednesday’s email said. After the The Star’s report in November, the university said it widened its investigation.

Mitra joined the UMKC faculty in 1994 as chairman of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division and held that post until last year. He continued teaching until his suspension.

The Star found that over Mitra’s 24 years at the school, 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. Kuchimanchi said he and several students were called from the lab to go bail putrid water from Mitra’s basement after it flooded.

The Star had reported that 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 for its initial report show that after one colleague filed a formal complaint, the university investigated. But that probe involved talking to only one student. And in other court documents the official in charge said that “in hindsight” the investigation could have been done differently.

The Star interviewed nearly a dozen former students, who, 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.

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The University of Missouri-Kansas City sent this email to School of Pharmacy colleagues on Wednesday.

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.
Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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