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A Comeback for Campus Kangaroo Courts?

Corey Friedman on

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.

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