A New York State appellate court sided with Cornell University Thursday in a tenure dispute case, overturning a lower court’s 2016 decision ordering a new tenure review for Mukund Vengalattore, assistant professor of physics. The lower court said that a sexual misconduct claim against Vengalattore by a former graduate student — which he denies, and which Cornell's Office of Workforce Policy and Labor Relations found no evidence of -- had severely compromised his tenure application process. Several faculty committees ruled in Vengalattore’s favor, but his application was denied by administrators. Cornell did not follow its own policies and procedures, keeping Vengalattore in the dark as to the allegations against him until he appealed the negative tenure decision, and then denying him due process and a hearing on the matter, the 2016 decision said.
In contrast, the new appellate court decision says that Cornell did not deny Vengalattore tenure in “bad faith.” Courts should generally defer to institutional judgment in such matters, the decision says, and Vengalattore’s tenure application included both “positive and negative opinions from an array of reviewers” about his work. And while the allegations against Vengalattore may have been “discussed” during his tenure review process, the decision says, “the record of evidence indicates that such allegations did not factor into the final tenure decision.”
Joel M. Malina, university spokesperson, said that Cornell was “gratified” by the new decision, which “unequivocally vindicates” administrative actions regarding Vengalattore. The decision also affirms “judicial deference properly afforded academic institutions in tenure and promotion decisions,” he said.
Vengalattore said in an interview that he’s considering his legal options, including a possible retaliation claim against Cornell for the treatment he says he and his students have been subjected to since his tenure denial, such as threats to close his lab. The appellate court “got several facts completely wrong,” he added, alleging that Cornell repeatedly misrepresented key elements of the case. He noted that he has still not had a campus hearing regarding the misconduct allegations. Cornell policy says an external expert committee “shall” be appointed to assess complicated tenure cases such as his, he said, disagreeing with the appellate court's determination that such an outside review is optional.