In lawsuits filled with accusations of retaliation, plagiarism, verbal abuse and destruction of evidence, two professors at the College of Pharmacy contend they’ve suffered years of discrimination there.
Further, a former adjunct professor in the College of Public Health has filed a similar suit stemming from the turmoil at the pharmacy school.
In separate but similar suits, Sheryl Szeinbach and Enrique Seoane-Vazquez contend their bosses and colleagues have humiliated them, plotted against them and given them low pay raises while making their work lives miserable. Rosa Rodriguez-Monguio, Seoane’s girlfriend, claims her OSU career was ruined by the turmoil.
Ohio State, represented by at least five attorneys including some from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, has denied the claims. The university does not comment on pending litigation, Amy Murray, assistant director of Media Relations, said in an e-mail Monday.
The litigation stems from an escalating battle within the pharmacy faculty that began in 2004, when Szeinbach and Seoane expressed reservations about plans to hire Raj Balkrishnan as a professor. Balkrishnan left OSU this summer and took a job at the University of Michigan.
“I have moved away from the Ohio State University in 2009 primarily because of the terrible environment created by these lawsuits which according to me are based on completely false and unsubstantiated allegations by the plaintiffs,” Balkrishnan said in an e-mail Friday.
Despite the objections of Seoane and Szeinbach, Milap Nahata, chair of the Division of Pharmacy Practice and Administration, hired Balkrishnan, who started at OSU in January 2005. During the interview process Balkrishnan acknowledged that while he worked at the University of Texas at Austin, he had “experienced conflicts with colleagues at the university at which he was then employed,” according to the suit.
Szeinbach alleges that Nahata preferred faculty and students who were of South Asian Indian origin, such as Balkrishnan, while treating those of Spanish origin with less respect. Szeinbach is Caucasian.
After he was hired, Balkrishnan called one of Szeinbach’s students a “bitch,” according to her suit. Also, while at a 2007 college meeting, Balkrishnan jumped out of his chair, confronted Szeinbach with clenched fists and stated, “You just need to shut up and stop being a bitch.” OSU investigated that incident and found it to be true. Balkrishnan was disciplined.
The bitterness has taken a toll on the pharmacy faculty. In a deposition, OSU Human Resources consultant Anne Massaro testified that she interviewed 29 faculty members and some called the dispute a “cancer” in the department.
The university could have avoided the suits, said Eric Rosenberg, attorney for the three professors.
“It appears OSU administrators apply rules differently to people who raise Title VII [federal discrimination law] claims,” Rosenberg said. “If rules for tenure and academic misconduct had been applied consistently in this case, this could have been avoided.”
Szeinbach contends in her suit that she has been falsely accused of academic plagiarism.
Balkrishnan sent harsh e-mails to the entire faculty about an article Szeinbach had published in an academic journal. In April 2007, he e-mailed Mark Levy, the editor of The Primary Care Respiratory Journal, questioning how Szeinbach used data in the piece.
While Levy was looking into the allegation, Balkrishnan e-mailed the faculty saying that the article created a “matter of great shame and disrepute to the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy.”
In August 2005, Seoane, who is Hispanic, filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint with OSU regarding actions taken by Balkrishnan, Nahata and other faculty members.
Szeinbach alleges that because she has supported Seoane in his effort to get tenure, Balkrishnan retaliated against her by telling many students to not take classes with either her or Seoane. She also claims former OSU employees Philip Schneider and Craig Pederson discouraged students in the OSU Hospital Pharmacy Program from working with her and Seoane.
That affected their evaluations, they claim, and so they got lower pay raises than their colleagues.
In September 2006, Seoane filed charges of discrimination with both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. Szeinbach has filed similar charges with both agencies.
The plagiarism dispute stems from Balkrishnan’s contention that Szeinbach used the same data in two separate articles.
Szeinbach’s suit states that Balkrishnan knew this was not true. She also claims that Balkrishnan, Nahata, Pederson, Schneider and Robert Brueggemeier, the dean of the college, plotted to use her support of Seoane and the questions about her articles against her. Her suit says she was the victim of a “Retaliation Plan.”
“I have been a faculty member for 20 years. During this time, I have never observed a faculty member treated so unfairly as Dr. Enrique Seoane-Vazquez,” Szeinbach said in an e-mail Saturday.
“As a result of my support for Dr. Seoane, I was subjected to numerous forms of retaliation, which have damaged me personally and professionally. However, I hope that my actions may help to level the playing field for future students and faculty who have the courage to report civil rights violations,” she said.
Szeinbach also claims that because of e-mails Balkrishnan sent to others universities about her supposed plagiarism, one school halted employment discussions with her.
After investigating Balkrishnan’s complaint, editor Levy told Szeinbach she had done nothing seriously wrong by using very similar data in two articles. He said in an e-mail that although she had failed to cross reference the similar data, the oversight “was not intentional.”
Despite Levy’s e-mail, Balkrishnan filed a complaint with OSU’s Human Resources Office, claiming that Szeinbach had violated university policy. Human Resources referred the issue to the Office of Research Compliance.
That office appointed a committee that found Szeinbach did not commit self-plagiarism by using her own material twice. Nevertheless, the committee concluded Szeinbach violated OSU’s Research Misconduct policy and recommended Brueggemeier establish a committee to investigate the issue further.
Both Szeinbach and Seoane contend in their suits that several faculty members, including the dean, engaged in far more egregious “publication practices that appear to violate commonly accepted practices within the scientific research community.”
Her suit contends that in March 2008, OSU offered to dismiss its investigation of her supposed plagiarism if she would agree not to participate in Seoane’s tenure process. She refused. That offer, the suit says, is more evidence that the college was retaliating against her.
The case has generated more than 100,000 documents. In preparation for trial, Rosenberg has tried to document the years of testy and exasperated exchanges among the affected faculty, human resources employees, university attorneys and others.
In recent court filings, Rosenberg contends that university employees destroyed many important documents that would have helped his clients win their cases. In July Rosenberg asked the judge to impose sanctions on Ohio State for “willfully allowing the destruction of evidence.” The judge has not ruled on that yet.
Szeinbach’s suit is a long way from over, Rosenberg said. He continues to gather information for an eventual trial.
Rodriguez-Monguio contends she lost her job at OSU because she lost research money due to Balkrishnan’s complaints about her to the College of Public Health. She now teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The College of Pharmacy denied Seoane tenure earlier this year. He has appealed and that process continues at OSU.
Seoane’s suit was dismissed on Oct. 9 because the judge ruled that Seoane still had administrative options to pursue at the university for his grievances. He can refile his suit after those options are exhausted, Rosenberg said.
In her 2007 assessment of the college, Massaro of Human Resources reported that the years of wrangling was hurting the faculty.
“Disruptive and adversarial behavior of a few faculty, and the distraction caused by this disruptive behavior, is of grave concern for almost all in the Division,” her report said.
“Examples of the disruptive/adversarial behavior include: unprofessional meeting behaviors, inappropriate student advising, scholarly misconduct, fiduciary misconduct and failure to obtain IRB [institutional review board] approval for research involving patients.”
Rosenberg says he’s concluded that, at least in this case, OSU could have avoided this protracted and expensive battle if it had just applied the same behavior standards to faculty as it does to students.
“When you look at the Honor Code applied to students,” he said, “it appears certain faculty members have engaged in far more egregious behavior than any students and have not been subject to the same scrutiny.”