A former Ohio State associate vice president filed a lawsuit against the university and university administrators Friday in the U.S. Southern District of Ohio Court Eastern Division for racial discrimination and retaliation.
The associate vice president, Dipanjan Nag, filed the suit against the university, the university-owned non-profit Ohio State Innovation Foundation, University Provost Bruce McPheron, and Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Michael Papadakis, claiming they subjected him to a hostile and discriminatory work environment and retaliated against him when he reported it, according to the lawsuit. Nag served as Ohio State’s associate vice president of technology commercialization from 2016 to 2018.
The lawsuit said Nag offered to resign and accept another job offer but was persuaded not to by McPheron. On July 10, 2018, Papadakis denied Nag a promotion expressly due to his protected complaints of discrimination and retaliation. One month later, Nag was terminated from the university and told by McPheron and Papadakis it was because of his complaints.
The lawsuit claims McPheron and Papadakis made “false claims to government investigators” and that Papadakis made a false statement under oath about the retaliatory statements and actions.
McPheron and Papadakis are being sued in their personal and official capacities, according to the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the university said the university does not comment on pending litigation.
Jeffrey Vardaro, a lawyer representing Nag, said the lawsuit was unusual because a lot of the key conversations are recorded and that Ohio State has an “accountability problem.”
“When people come forward with reports about [harassment], they ignore them, they punish them. They lie about it, and they cover it up,” Vardaro said.
Nag, who is from India, was an officer for the foundation and oversaw the commercialization of Ohio State researchers’ and academics’ intellectual property while working in the Technology Commercialization Office, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit states that under Nag’s direction, the office — which was made up of primarily white, male employees — more than tripled its income from 2016 to 2018 and increased the diversity of its staff. The office also received positive reviews of its productivity and “upward momentum” from university administration.
The lawsuit states that Nag’s supervisor, former University Vice President of Business and Finance and President and Chief Executive Officer of the Innovation Foundation Matthew McNair, repeatedly made racially discriminatory comments about non-white employees and made “crude sexual comments” to female employees.
McNair yelled at Nag “without cause” and instructed Nag not to speak during meetings despite allowing “white employees with less expertise and knowledge of the subject matter” to speak, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit also claims that McNair refused to address an incident in which a white employee mocked another employee’s Indian accent in front of that employee and others, and discouraged employees from reporting the incident to Human Resources.
Additionally, McNair reported multiple times that Nag was responsible for morale problems in the office to higher-level university administrators, foundation officers and university Human Resources. Nag was consequently assigned multiple management “coaches” and was placed under a review process three times during his employment, in which Nag’s subordinates, peers and supervisors gave feedback on his management. According to the lawsuit, this “360 review” process is unusual for employees who achieve “objectively positive results.”
Nag filed a complaint against McNair Feb. 25, 2018, detailing “a culture of fear” in the department, and said that McNair’s “unprofessional conduct has on multiple occasions devolved into creation of a hostile work environment based on sex, race, and ethnic origin.”
McNair did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
According to the lawsuit, when McNair heard of the complaint, he began discussing Nag’s possible termination with Papadakis and Judith Lang, the office’s human resource officer. The lawsuit states that during these conversations, McNair told Lang and Papadakis that Dawn Costick, Nag’s performance coach at the time, concluded that “cultural issues stemming from growing up in India are part of the problem.”
At the same time, the lawsuit claims Costick pressured Nag to withdraw his complaint and to resolve it directly with McNair. When Nag refused, Costick then withdrew from the coaching assignment, citing a “conflict of interest.”
Nag issued a follow-up complaint of retaliation against McNair April 5, 2018 due to McNair excluding Nag from assignments and his continued “hostility in the workplace” during the investigation, according to the lawsuit.
Kristi Hoge, an Ohio State human resources investigator, sent a draft of her investigative report to McPheron and Papadakis April 16, 2018. According to the lawsuit, Papadakis emailed Hoge urging her to include more criticisms of Nag, despite the report being about McNair’s harassment.
“We’ve spent almost 2 months dealing with the issues alleged, during which time we’ve been unable to actually move the office forward,” Papadakis said, according to the lawsuit.
In the final investigative report issued April 17, 2018, Hoge included “harsh criticisms” of Nag’s leadership “while dismissing McNair’s confirmed discriminatory conduct as merely ‘inappropriate behavior’” that was not in violation of university policy.
Following the report, the lawsuit claims that McNair continued to “seek opportunities to undermine” Nag, including complaining about him to Lang, Papadakis and other university administrators. McNair also began to call for Nag’s third “360 review” and sought to include an “excessive” number of participants, many of whom were favorable to McNair. McNair also indicated to Nag that he should expect a negative performance review.
Nag emailed McPheron June 27, 2018 to report a retaliation claim against Papadakis and McNair, according to the lawsuit. He asked McPheron to delay the “360 review” and the performance evaluation.
McNair announced his resignation from both the university and foundation July 10, 2018, effective at the end of that month. The lawsuit states that on the same day, Papadakis called Nag into a meeting with Hoge to criticize him for reporting his retaliation claim against Papadakis and McNair to McPheron, despite McPheron being the appropriate person for Nag to approach. It was in this meeting that Papadakis expressly denied Nag’s promotion to the supervisory position McNair vacated.
The lawsuit states Papadakis told Nag, “I want to make it clear to you that you’re not being considered for that. Your name is not in the conversation to be interim leader of the office.”
According to the lawsuit, Nag received his performance evaluation from McNair a few days after the July 10 meeting with Papadakis and Hoge. It was “very negative” and falsely accused Nag of being responsible for Costick withdrawing as his management coach, the lawsuit states. Nag sent a rebuttal to McNair and a representative from human resources, and McNair forwarded it to Papadakis, Hoge and other university administrators.
McPheron and Papadakis terminated Nag’s employment with the university and position with the foundation in a meeting with Nag and Lang Aug. 10, 2018. The lawsuit states that in the meeting, Papadakis told Nag his reason for termination was Nag’s complaint about McNair’s evaluation.
“The last straw for me was that lengthy rebuttal that you sent a week or two ago back to all of us with regards to your performance review,” the lawsuit states Papadakis told Nag.
McPheron then told Nag that filing the rebuttal was “just not the way you lead,” according to the lawsuit.
Nag filed a Title VII complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and Equal Opportunity Employment Commission Feb. 8, 2019. During the Ohio Civil Rights Commission’s investigation, the lawsuit claims that Papadakis and McPheron gave false testimony, with Papadakis repeatedly denying the statements he made regarding his motive for Nag’s termination after having them read to him “verbatim by a Commission investigator.”
On Oct. 24, 2019, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission concluded that there was probable cause that Nag’s termination was in response to his protected complaints. Nag was given notice of his right to sue July 2, 2020.
Vardaro said Nag is seeking financial compensation as well as accountability and some changes in the way that the university handles these matters.
“We’ve asked for the kind of relief that he’s entitled to under the federal discrimination laws — his lost wages and compensation for the way that this happened — but also injunctive relief so that OSU will stop this pattern of discriminating and retaliating against their employees,” Vardaro said.
The university, university foundation, McPheron and Papadakis have 21 days to respond to the lawsuit.