Indian-Origin Professor in the US Accused of Using Students as Domestic Workers

Ashim Mitra, a pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, reportedly made his students tend his lawn, look after his dog and water the house plants, sometimes for weeks at a time.

New Delhi: A prominent Indian-origin professor in the US has been accused of exploiting his students as servants and compelling them to do his personal work, American daily Kansas City Star has reported.

Ashim Mitra, a pharmacy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, made his students 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, the newspaper reported.

According to the paper, over Mitra’s 24 years in the UMKC School of Pharmacy, the professor compelled his students to act as his personal servants. The professor has dismissed the allegations.

Quoting nearly a dozen former students, the newspaper said Mitra made them haul equipment and bus tables at his social events.

Former Indian student Kamesh Kuchimanchi told the daily that he considered his life at UMKC “nothing more than modern slavery”. He alleged that Mitra exploited cultural kinship with students from India.

“He sent us to the basement,” Kuchimanchi said. “There was a lot of water. He told us you are going to clean it up. He handed us buckets. We spent the day bailing out the water. It was a lot of back-breaking work. It was slave labour.”

When Kuchimanchi once told Mitra he wouldn’t be a servant, “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.”

Also read: Four IIT Kanpur Professors Booked for Harassing Dalit Colleague

Working with Mitra was coveted, one of the students told the daily, because of the professor’s reputation. “Mitra was the man. He had the largest lab in terms of space, in terms of students. He had the fancy projects, so it was prestigious to work in his lab, to say you worked on his fancy projects.”

One of his colleagues, Mridul Mukherji, who is also from India, is suing Mitra and university officials. He filed two related lawsuits in Jackson County Circuit Court one in 2016 and one in 2018, the report said.

The lawsuits claim that Mitra mistreated vulnerable foreign students and that the university retaliated against Mukherji when he complained.

According to allegations in the 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 in corralling millions in research dollars for the school.

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.

Another former colleague, Jack Fincham, told the newspaper that he lived nearby and often saw Indian students engaged in housework at Mitra’s house. “It was a common thing to see,” Fincham said. “They were there with rakes and mowers and other yard utensils.”

In a statement to the Kansas City Star through his attorney, Mitra said, “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 have not required anyone to perform chores unrelated to their studies.”

“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.

Another former student told the daily that students feared the repercussions if they refused Mitra.

They were so afraid of not graduating, said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear that Mitra could undermine her career. She said students complained to one another privately.

“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.

Also read: SC/ST Grant: Fees Not Paid, Students in Chennai Made to Enter Exam Hall 30 Minutes Late

After the Kansas City Star published its investigation on Sunday, UMKC has said that it will broaden its investigation into Mitra. In a statement to students, faculty and staff, chancellor Mauli Agrawal said, “Once our fact-finding is complete, we will take any and all disciplinary action as necessary.” Agrawal also called the treatment of students described the newspaper “highly concerning and disappointing”.

(With PTI inputs)