Editorials

After hiding details about student’s death, UMKC needs to change its cover-up culture

UMKC claim they were unaware that foreign UMKC student was working at KC restaurant

Sharath Koppu, a UMKC student from India, was killed while working at J’s Fish and Chicken Market. UMKC officials claim they were not aware Koppu was working there which would violate his visa status.
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Sharath Koppu, a UMKC student from India, was killed while working at J’s Fish and Chicken Market. UMKC officials claim they were not aware Koppu was working there which would violate his visa status.

Strike one: Five years ago, The Star reported “a pattern of exaggerations, misstatements and cherry-picking data at UMKC’s Henry W. Bloch School of Management” in pursuit of top rankings and national awards.

Schools officials strenuously denied doing any such thing. But a 2015 audit by the University of Missouri System showed they had indeed “knowingly submitted false data” in the pursuit of various honors. A top official at the Bloch school said “he feared for his job if he did not submit flawed or false data to the Princeton Review.” The report also found that the academic journal article ranking the University of Missouri-Kansas City No. 1 in the world in innovation management research was edited in part by the then-head of the Bloch School department that received the top ranking.

Strike two: In January of this year, a UMKC professor accused of exploiting foreign graduate students at the School of Pharmacy over his 24 years at the university finally resigned. But that was two months after The Star first wrote about allegations that Ashim Mitra had threatened Indian students that he’d get their visas revoked unless they worked as his personal servants, in an arrangement one former student described as “nothing more than modern slavery.”

After that story broke, new Chancellor Mauli Agrawal said that the university had already been investigating Mitra even before he arrived in Kansas City in June. But somehow, Mitra was still teaching. And Agrawal initially told The Star’s editorial board that “I’m not so sure we’ll go back and investigate this particular case” and find out why an initial investigation went nowhere. “For one, it’s over a long time period some of these things are coming out; these people are not even here.”

According to allegations in a lawsuit, administrators not only knew about Mitra’s abuse but overlooked complaints because Mitra brought in millions in research dollars. Court documents showed that after one colleague filed a formal complaint, the university did investigate — by talking to only one student.

And now, strike three: A new Star report says that last July, after a student from India was shot dead in the East Side restaurant where he worked, UMKC officials knowingly pushed the false narrative that Sharath Koppu wasn’t really working there, which wasn’t allowed under his F1 visa, but was instead “assisting family friends.”

Emails obtained by The Star suggest that officials feared the visa violation could put the school at risk of an investigation of the school’s international student program. Gary Bergman, founder and president of University Study, which works with universities to recruit international students, said, “For the university to try to cover this up only means that they or someone on their staff were knowingly violating policy and they were aware. Why else would they cover it up? That is the only reason I can figure. The professional response would be to say the staff had no knowledge.”

It’s quite possible that, as officials have insisted, they did not have knowledge of this student’s off-campus job. But it’s the instinct to tailor the truth and cover up that’s a serious and ongoing problem at the university.

The school’s mission statement pledges that members of the UMKC community will “Learn from our mistakes and value feedback from others.”

“As individuals,” it says, “we agree to act with honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability for our decisions and actions.”

We see none of that in UMKC’s pattern of denying the truth right up until it can no longer be denied. For an institution of higher learning, their learning curve is disappointingly flat.

Chancellor Agrawal may not have even known that the statement he put out about the student’s death was false. But he knows now, and has a lot of work to do to change the culture of the school’s administration into one that lives up to its mission statement.

Right now, the message to students is to deny until busted, and then deny some more. And when does the willingness to learn from mistakes kick in?

Asked what the school would do to prevent a repeat, and whether any internal investigation into the false narrative would be done, spokesman John Martellaro responded with the following, completely nonresponsive statement: “Our primary focus continues to be on the grief and loss experienced by the family and friends of Sharath Koppu, including many members of our university community. We are proud of the accomplishments of the thousands of international students who have enjoyed a very positive educational experience at UMKC over the years, earned valuable degrees and gone on to successful careers in their home countries, in the U.S., and around the world.”

Dr. Agrawal, over to you.

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