Prof threatens lawsuit against her students
By Allyson Bennett, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 28, 2008
Priya Venkatesan '90, a former Writing 5 lecturer and research associate at Dartmouth Medical School, is threatening to name seven of her former students in a potential civil rights lawsuit against the College, DMS and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Venkatesan announced Friday. Venkatesan also plans to write an autobiographical book that will include details of her experience at Dartmouth and name the seven students in question, all of whom were members of her Winter term Writing 5 class in 2008, she said.
Venkatesan is considering suing the College for harassment and discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects against employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The suit would likely name faculty members as well, including Tom Cormen, chair of the writing program at the College, and DMS professor Christopher Lowrey. Cormen declined to comment, and Lowrey did not return requests for comment by press time.
Venkatesan, who said she left Dartmouth voluntarily on March 17, contends that she was subjected to "inappropriate and unprofessional" behavior while at the College. Venkatesan contacted a New Hampshire lawyer on Friday to determine whether she had grounds for a potential lawsuit. She will speak with the lawyer again on Monday, she said. Venkatesan refused to disclose the name of the attorney.
"I think that I have a good case because there were just so many instances â€“ it was almost an incessant barrage â€“ of hostility, nastiness and anti-intellectualism that I may just in fact have a case, but I'm not a lawyer," Venkatesan said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
Venkatesan got in touch with a literary agent a few days ago, she said. She said the book and the lawsuit are separate issues.
"Even if I do not have any recourse to the law, I still feel like my story should get out there, and I should try to pursue publication," Venkatesan said, adding that she is pursuing a lawsuit because she believes her civil rights may have been violated, not in order to promote her book.
Students were first informed of a possible lawsuit in an e-mail from Venkatesan sent on April 25, according to one student from Venkatesan's class. The student is not one of those Venkatesan named as a potential defendant in the suit.
Behavior in the class did not rise to the level of harassment or discrimination, the student said, although many students stopped paying attention in class and complained about Venkatesan to Cormen. Students believed that Venkatesan did not accept opinions contrary to her own and would lower the grades of students who disagreed with her, the student said. The median grade in the class was a B, according to the Registrar's website. All other sections of Writing 5 had a median grade of B+ or higher that term.
"We didn't like her because she was not a good teacher, and she wasn't very open to others' ideas," the student said. "It had nothing to do with her race or anything like that."
As an example of Venkatesan's rejection of views different from her own, the student highlighted Venkatesan's cancelation of class for a week after the class applauded a student who contradicted Venkatesan's opinions about post-modernism.
Venkatesan said the incident occurred when she was lecturing about "The Death of Nature," a book by Carolyne Merchant, and the witch trials of the Renaissance. The student went on a "diatribe" about the inappropriate nature of challenging patriarchal authority, Venkatesan said. Vakatesan respected the student's right to express this opinion, she said, but the manner in which he vocalized his views and the applause afterward were disrespectful and offensive.
"I was horrified," Venkatesan said. "My responsibility is not to stifle them, but when they clapped at his comment, I thought that crossed the line . . . I was facing intolerance of ideas and intolerance of freedom of expression."
Venkatesan contacted Cormen about the event, she said, but claims she received no support from him. She canceled class because the incident caused her "intellectual and emotional distress," she said. This event, which occurred on Feb. 1, would likely be included in a list of grievances relating to a potential lawsuit, she said.
Following the incident, Venkatesan expressed her dissatisfaction with the class, and the student expected Venkatesan to respond to the situation, likely with an angry e-mail, but had not expected anything on the level of a potential lawsuit, the student said.
"I was just stunned," the student said. "I didn't know what to do. I just thought it was really ridiculous...It's not really a great situation for her, but I feel like this is mostly because she's upset about something."
Venkatesan also said she was exposed to a "barrage of offensive behavior" while working as a researcher in the medical school. Venkatesan, whose specialty is the intersection of science and literature, said many of her academic interpretations of science in the context of literary theory during laboratory meetings were received in a "hostile," "demeaning" and "anti-intellectual" manner by her colleagues.
"I understand that there are such things as bad working environments -- a shithole is just a shithole, and that's not illegal, and I know that," she said. "But sometimes you have to take time out and address the issue of justice in society and to really implement the values that are so lacking at Dartmouth."
The lawyer Venkatesan contacted advised her to create a chronology of events, including dates and names of individuals involved, that she felt constituted harassment or discrimination. Venkatesan has sent this partially-completed chronology of approximately 15 events to Ethan Dmitrovsky, chair of the pharmacology and toxicology department at DMS, and Charles Mannix, chief operating officer of DMS, she said. She should complete the chronology by Monday, she said, and will wait for a response from the two men before deciding whether to continue with any legal action.
Students in Venkatesan's class were invited to a meeting at Parkhurst Administration Building with Dean of First Year Students Gail Zimmerman, a legal counsel and others, the student in the class said, although the student did not attend the meeting.
Dartmouth General Counsel Bob Donin does not believe Venkatesan's lawsuit has legal merit, he said in a statement e-mailed to The Dartmouth.
"It has come to our attention that a former faculty member has e-mailed some undergraduates and faculty members mentioning the possibility of legal action," Donin said in the statement. "We have determined that there is no basis for such action, and we have advised the students and faculty members of this."
Venkatesan took a position at a large research university on April 14. She said she was uncomfortable naming the institution.
Dmitrovsky, Mannix and Zimmerman did not return requests for comment by press time.