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Ashim Mitra-UMKC
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Bitter pill?
PUT TO WORK

An Indian professor in the US allegedly treated students like “personal servants”

By Aria Thaker

An acclaimed Indian professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) has been accused of exploiting his Indian graduate students like “personal servants” for decades, according to a detailed investigation in the Kansas City Star newspaper.

Ashim K Mitra, a professor at UMKC’s School of Pharmacy, coerced his students to do personal chores for him, such as clearing his flooded basement, watching his dog, and serving food to guests at religious events he hosted, former students told the newspaper.

All the students who Mitra allegedly put to work were Indian, and were “bound by a culturally influenced silence,” the newspaper noted. “It’s a cultural thing in India,” one student said. “When a teacher says do something we tend to do it.”

“I considered my life at UMKC nothing more than modern slavery,” Kamesh Kuchimanchi, one of Mitra’s former PhD students, who travelled to the US from India to work with him, told the Kansas City Star. Once, Kuchimanchi claims, after he told Mitra he would no longer perform personal tasks for him, “he threatened to kick me out of the university and force me to lose my visa and lose everything.”

Another UMKC professor, Mridul Mukherji, is suing Mitra and UMKC, claiming the university retaliated after he complained in 2014 about Mitra’s alleged harassment of students. Mukherji even secretly recorded conversations he had with students who acknowledged taking care of Mitra’s dog when he and his wife were away.

Mitra, a graduate of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, joined UMKC in 1994 as professor and chair of pharmaceutical sciences, and has assisted at least 55 doctoral students and mentored 14 post-doctoral scientists. He also holds nine patents, has written 350 primary peer-reviewed research papers during his storied career, and has brought in over $7 million in external funding since joining UMKC. In 2016, he was presented the University of Missouri System President’s award for “distinguished, career-long sustained excellence.”

In a statement issued to the newspaper 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.

Quartz has written to Mitra for further comment and will update the piece if he responds.

Yesterday (Nov. 18), hours after the Kansas City Star report, UMKC announced that it would expand its inquiry into Mitra’s conduct and take any disciplinary action needed. The paper’s original investigation had quoted responses by the university provost and executive vice chancellor, saying that Mukherji’s complaint had been investigated, but “no students substantiated the claims,” and so “no formal action could be taken.”