A prominent and reputed Indian-origin professor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City has been accused of exploiting his students as servants and threatening them with revoking their visas if they did not comply, an American daily has claimed.
Ashim Mitra, a longtime pharmacy professor at the US university, compelled his students to tend to his lawn, look after his dog and water the plants, sometimes for weeks at a time, when he and his wife were away, the Kansas City Star reported.
The newspaper spoke to nearly a dozen former students about Mitra’s demands and the allegations were corroborated by the professor’s former colleagues, who said they saw the students performing menial tasks off campus. However, Mitra has denied the accusations.
Mitra’s ‘victims’ were mainly PhD candidates from India who came to the US on student visas. Some of the students said Mitra wielded much power in the university and was well known as he had brought the university millions of dollars in research grants. They said Mitra had the power to force them out of school, meaning they would lose their visas.
Calling his experience at the university “nothing more than modern slavery”, former Indian student Kamesh Kuchimanchi said Mitra exploited cultural kinship with students from India. Recalling an incident when he declined to abide by Mitra’s orders, Kuchimanchi said the professor threatened to expel him.
“He threatened to kick me out of the university and force me to lose my visa and lose everything. That was his ammo. Either fall in line or you would be thrown out. You didn’t want to be in that situation where you have to go back home empty-handed,” the Start quoted Kuchimanchi as saying.
Mridul Mukherji, another pharmacy school professor from India, is suing Mitra as well as the University of Missouri Board of Curators, the dean of the pharmacy school and a former administrator. Mukherji claimed he was the victim of discrimination and harassment after complaining about Mitra’s behaviour. He filed two related lawsuits in Jackson County Circuit Court — one in 2016 and one in 2018, the report said.
According to allegations in pending litigation, the university not only knew about Mitra’s behaviour, but administrators overlooked complaints for years because Mitra was among the most successful faculty members.
Court documents obtained by the daily show that after one colleague filed a formal complaint, the university investigated, but the probe involved talking to only one student.
Denying the allegations, Mitra said he did not make anyone perform chores unrelated to their studies. “Over the years, I have invited graduate students to my home where they have done work related to their courses of study, and at times eaten meals prepared by my wife. I do not understand the suggestion that anyone was concerned with their visas being at risk. I have worked with over 60 graduate students attending UMKC on F1 (study) visas, and I am not aware of any of those students having their visa status challenged or revoked,” he said.
The University of Missouri-Kansas City said they would expand an inquiry into the incident. “Once our fact-finding is complete, we will take any and all disciplinary action as necessary,” Chancellor Mauli Agrawal said.
Another former student told the daily that students feared the repercussions if they refused Mitra. “They were so afraid of not graduating,” she said. “Because he had the prestige, he could influence people. He could make things happen. For that reason, they were reluctant to come forward. So were most of Mitra’s pharmacy school colleagues,” she was quoted as saying by the daily.