Rarely does a state university move as swiftly as UMKC has in its prompt suspension of pharmacy chair Ashim Mitra charged with using students for “slave labor.” 

In an equally unlikely move, UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal announced Mitra’s suspension with pay in a meeting with the Kansas City Star’s Editorial Board. Whether Mitra will face any permanent discipline depends on the outcome of a UMKC investigation underway before this week’s exposé in the Star.

The fact that Chancellor Mauli Agrawal also hails from India may save UMKC a chunk of change and reputation.

Several countervailing factors were likely at play in Mitra’s prompt suspension. Interpreting them in today’s bewildering academic environment is a challenge, but here goes.

One factor, of course, was the media exposure. The Star articles stung especially in their implication of administrative indifference. Agrawal’s appearance before the editorial board suggests a shrewd and seemingly sincere effort to recast the role of the university from passive enabler to active defender of student rights.

“We want to send a clear message to our students that they are our most important asset,” Agrawal told the Star editors. “Asset” may not have been the most felicitous choice of words–Mitra thought of students as “assets” as well–but Agrawal’s message was otherwise clear.

Critical too in Mitra’s suspension was the Star’s generous use of the word “slave” both in the body copy and in its headlines. Wednesday’s Star headline kept the “slave” theme front and center: “UMKC chancellor suspends professor who was focus of Star’s ‘slave labor’ investigation.”

A native of India, Mitra enjoys a minority status that under normal circumstances would temper university actions against him. UMKC veterans cannot recall suspension of a faculty member this swiftly, especially a minority.

Although race was not a factor in Mitra’s action–the exploited students were also from India–the suggestion that Mitra uses his students as “slaves” seems to have added a racial connotation to the incident. The semantic punch of the word appears to have broken down the HR protection Mitra might otherwise have expected.

Unusual too in this incident was the active and public involvement of the chancellor right from the beginning. Agrawal, however, has an advantage the provost does not. He too hails from India. If Mitra sues UMKC, his attorneys will have a much harder time making the dread “racism” charge stick.

The politics of any university today are complex to the point of Byzantine, especially when race or sex or ethnicity is involved. The problem for UMKC students, however, is that complexity costs money, lots of it, and it does not make them even a little bit smarter.



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