A Comeback for Campus Kangaroo Courts?

By Corey Friedman

April 17, 2021 6 min read

Whether or not Mukund Vengalattore dated a graduate student under his supervision, Cornell University failed him and his accuser when it, as Vengalattore says, passed judgment without properly investigating the claim.

After the grad student filed a 2014 sexual misconduct complaint against Vengalattore, an atomic physicist and tenure-track assistant professor in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences, Title IX investigators found him in violation of university policy without bothering to hear his side of the story, according to a case argued before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.

"Cornell denied him any hearing. It denied him a right to cross-examine the witnesses. It even denied him the right to present his own live witnesses," said Richard Samp, senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which is representing Vengalattore. "Instead, Cornell appointed a single individual as both the investigator and the jury, and the result was a totally unfair process."

Vengalattore was denied tenure after the disciplinary action, and his appointment at Cornell ended in 2018. The professor and his lawyers discussed the sham investigation that sidelined him in a video released April 2, with Vengalattore noting that Cornell's findings differed from the accuser's complaint of a single sexual encounter.

What happened to Vengalattore is egregious, but it's far from unique. American colleges and universities routinely subject students and faculty members accused of misconduct to Kafkaesque kangaroo courts devoid of basic procedural fairness.

Under the U.S. Department of Education's interpretation of Title IX, colleges are required to investigate all claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In the latter cases, administrative inquiries can run parallel to police investigations.

Even when detectives determine an allegation isn't credible or there's insufficient evidence to support criminal charges, those accused can still face punishment on campus.

In April 2011, under then-President Obama, the federal departments of Education and Justice distributed a four-page "Dear Colleague" letter to college administrators providing a model framework for Title IX investigations. The document recommends that officials decide claims based on the preponderance of the evidence, the "50% plus a feather" standard.

Unlike in criminal trials where guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, colleges are instructed to find the accused responsible for misconduct if complaints are slightly more likely than not to be true.

Instead of facilitating fair and neutral hearings, the Obama administration's guidance tipped the scales in favor of accusers at the expense of due process for the accused. Some advocates say supporting sexual assault survivors precludes key elements of the adversarial system, such as the right to cross-examine witnesses.

In practice, the letter empowered bureaucrats without legal training to instill a culture of guilt by accusation. Hearings lacked legitimacy, and students began suing colleges for branding them with a scarlet letter without offering them a meaningful opportunity to plead their case.

Some schools dispensed with hearings altogether, allowing paper pushers to reach preordained outcomes without even bothering to appear impartial.

"The investigators refused to tell me the charges I was facing," Vengalattore said in the New Civil Liberties Alliance video. "They invented an allegation of a consensual yearlong relationship with the student, which neither she nor I alleged. In the end, with the blessings of the Department of Education, this former student was allowed to weaponize Title IX against me to derail my career."

Betsy DeVos, former President Trump's education secretary, rescinded the "Dear Colleague" letter in 2017 and went through the federal rulemaking process to require basic due process protections.

Due to notice and comment requirements, the new rules only took effect last August. Eight months later, they're already bound for the chopping block.

In an executive order, President Joe Biden directed the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to begin a comprehensive review of DeVos' reforms, which the agency said will ultimately lead to "possible revisions through a notice of proposed rulemaking."

Weakening protections for the accused will lead to more horror stories like the dystopian drama that cost Mukund Vengalattore the chance to build a career at Cornell. Those deprived of due process will continue taking their cases to real courtrooms when campus star chambers mete out manifest injustice.

Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: natureaddict at Pixabay

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