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- Crossing the Line
November 20, 2013
Many universities have been accused of ignoring harassment complaints against professors, leaving students and fellow faculty members vulnerable. The University of Idaho is among such institutions, following the 2011 murder of a graduate student by a professor and former lover she'd reported for harassment. But now the university is being sued by an ex-professor, with backing from the faculty association, for leaving a faculty member vulnerable -- and without a job -- because of accusations that were never proved.
A divided faculty appeals board eventually sided with Sanjay Gupta, former assistant professor of agricultural and life sciences. But after seven months of silence from Idaho on whether it will restore his job, he is now suing the institution for wrongful dismissal and other counts in a federal court. It’s a complicated case, given the close friendship Gupta, his wife and his accuser shared. Ultimately, however, as Idaho’s Faculty Appeals Hearing Board wrote in its letter to President Dennis Geist, “it boils down to the fact that one university employee (or former employee) is lying.”
Priyanka Gajjar, Gupta’s accuser, is now at the University of Idaho’s main campus in Moscow, where she was transferred from an off-site research and education center in which they both worked. She referred questions about the case to the university, which said it couldn’t comment on pending litigation. Gupta, who after he was dismissed moved to the University of Minnesota, said he wanted “justice." But he referred all other questions back to his lawyer, and Nick Gier, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Idaho and president of the Idaho Federation of Teachers. The faculty association has agreed to help the professor with his legal fees.
“I don’t think I’ve seen such an egregious violation of due process,” said Gier, who has been handling termination disputes for the union for 40 years. “The university was in defense mode. They assumed that [Gupta] was guilty before he could be proven innocent.” Disgraced among his colleagues, Gier added, Gupta is now working primarily as a grant writer at Minnesota, where he worked as a researcher before starting on the tenure track at Idaho. Gier said it's the only place that would take him, after rumors of the allegations spread among scientists in his field.
April Linscott, Gupta’s lawyer in Idaho, said his “constitutional rights and liberties give him certain due process rights, and I’m not certain he was afforded all of those rights in his dismissal. Jobs aren’t easy to come by in this economy and when you’re taking away someone’s livelihood and ability to earn a living, it deserves to be looked at closely.”
Three years into an assistant professorship at Idaho, in May 2011, Gupta hired Gajjar as a research support scientist. Gajjar holds a master’s degree in biological engineering with a background in dairy science -- not potatoes, Gupta's area of focus -- but Gupta says she actively pursued the job and assured him that she had the requisite lab skills.
According to the suit, Gupta immediately became concerned about her lack of expertise, determining that training details on her resume were falsified. But he offered her additional one-on-one and out-of-state training so that she could attempt to keep her job.
At the same time, Gupta and his wife, Archana Gupta, a co-plaintiff in the suit, developed a strong, almost family-like bond with Gajjar outside of work, Gier said. All three are from India and shared a cultural connection. And because the Guptas had no children, they treated Gajjar almost like a daughter, inviting her regularly to their home, they say. While she was there, she allegedly had free access to their computer and camera (details that relate to one of her charges against him).
Nevertheless, in the summer of 2011, Gupta gave Gajjar a final, 90-day performance evaluation. Near the end of that time, the research assistant “fully understood that her work performance was unsatisfactory and that she risked losing her job,” according to the suit. She asked for a one-month extension to try to improve her skills, and Gupta agreed.
Several days before the end of that extension period, Gajjar logged a verbal sexual harassment complaint with Gupta’s supervisor, that, among other things, accused him of offering unwanted expressions of affection; asking her to travel with him; and verbally threatening her based on her H1-B visa status. Most of the evidence is in the case is Gajjar's word, and the faculty appeals board found fault with or plausible alternative explanations for nearly all of the physical evidence, including photos, Microsoft Word documents and lab notes.
A week after Gajjar filed her appeal, Gupta received a letter from the university’s Human Rights Access and Inclusion office saying that he was under investigation for sexual harassment. The university’s prejudice toward Gupta was immediately evident, as no written complaint was prepared, Gier said, and according to university policy and procedures, verbal complaints must be followed up by a written statement. Without one, Gupta says he was never able to fully respond to the allegations against him, and that Gajjar was able to change the nature of her complaint over time.
The formal university investigation was swift. About two weeks later, in early November, investigators found that Gupta had sexually harassed and threatened Gajjar, and recommended his dismissal. Eight months later, a dismissal board of university-appointed faculty members unanimously agreed with those findings. Most damning in that hearing, Gier said, were close-up photographs of Gajjar’s torso that she said Gupta took on his camera. But Gier said that Gajjar had free access to the Gupta’s camera and could have taken them on her own.
There were alternative explanations to all of Gajjar’s claims, including that Gupta had said he loved her, Gier added. Gajjar once asked both Gupta and his wife if they thought of her like a daughter, and if, by logical extension, they loved her. And a late-night text calling Gajjar “cute” in Hindi only could have been sent by Anchara Gupta, he said, given the exact dialect of the text – and the way people write and speak in her home region in Northern India, not the professor's.
Gier says the university immediately overacted to the claim, in light of a violent incident involving one of its psychology professors. In late summer 2011, as Gajjar was working through her final performance evaluation, Ernesto Bustamante killed himself after murdering a graduate student he’d been dating. The student had previously filed complaints of harassment against the professor, but he kept his job. In late October, as Gupta was being investigated, the university revealed it had received additional student complaints about Bustamante’s erratic behavior.
The Faculty Appeals Hearing Board delivered its findings – a split vote, three-to-two in favor of Gupta – in April. Although its letter to President Geist notes that the case was “unusually difficult,” and that it could not determine “beyond doubt” which of the two parties was lying, the board expressed concern that some of the evidence used in Gupta’s dismissal hearing had been falsified. “Most egregious," it found, were lab book entries Gajjar admitted to writing after her complaint was filed, to document alleged one-on-one training sessions with Gupta.
“As a trained scientist, Ms. Gajjar should know that entering falsified information into a log is a transgression for which a scientist may be fired,” the dismissal board's letter reads. “This would include back-dating entries, which she admits she did."
The appeals board also wrote that there is an “alternative and plausible explanation for virtually every single allegation made against Dr. Gupta,” which the university ignored in its investigation. For example, it says, time stamps on a Microsoft Word document presented as evidence weren’t checked to see if a questionable phrase was inserted after the complaint was made. And Gajjar’s allegation that Gupta invited to her accompany him on a trip to out of state was complicated by the fact that Gupta’s wife was also booked for the trip.
Like Gier, the appeals board “worries” that the case was investigated at a time of “heightened sensitivity to potential abuses of power in the workplace.”
But the letter also refuted Gupta’s and his supporters’ claims that the university counsel was to blame for the unusual delay in the hearing. The board says that its members are volunteers and that any untimeliness in bringing the case to bear was due to work obligations, scheduling conflicts and “numerous procedural requests” on Gupta’s part.
A university spokeswoman said the university does not comment on pending litigation. Similarly, she said she could not respond to a request for a typical timeline for handling dismissal board hearings.
The university has lagged according to its own policies and procedures for responding to the appeals board's hearing; according to the Faculty Handbook, the president must render a decision on an appeals board's recommendations within 45 days.
According to the American Association of University Professors, allegations of sexual harassment against a professor should not be treated differently than other kinds of allegations of misconduct. Adequate cause must be established by a board of elected faculty peers, with the burden of proof resting with the institution, Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for AAUP said via email.
Gier said both of Gupta's boards were composed of faculty appointed, not elected, by the Faculty Senate's Committee on Committees.
Daniel Swinton, senior executive vice president at the NCHERM Group, a law and consulting firm that advises schools and colleges on safer schools and campuses, said he wasn't familiar with the Gupta case, but that it's possible in general for such high-profile events as the Bustamante murder-suicide to "negatively influence" sexual harassment cases that follow.
That said, it is possible for institutions to render fair judgments in those cases, he added. Anti-sex discrimination legislation, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, requires that institutions investigate such cases "fairly, impartially, and promptly," as well as thoroughly, he said. "There shouldn't be a skew in the investigation one way or the other -- let's just see the facts and information and where it lands." Where impartiality is difficult to ensure, he said, institutions may bring in an outside party to investigate claims.
Absent "clear and convincing" evidence in sexual harassment cases, universities typically opt to establish a preponderance of evidence, Swinton said. Absent that, or in "50-50" scenario where it's equally possible that the claims aren't true as that they are, faculty are typically found "not responsible" due to insufficient evidence.
Gier said Gupta has attempted to settle with the university for the "reasonable" amount of $350,000, to cover legal fees and some damages. Through the lawsuit, he'll likely seek more.
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