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June 23, 2000

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War without victors

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Shanthi Shankarkumar

After four years of indictments, charges and counter-charges, criminal and civil suits, the war between the Texas A&M University and Professor Dhiraj Pradhan shows no signs of ending.

Last month, Pradhan, 51, once the highest-paid professor in the university, lost the civil suit he had filed against the university for violation of his constitutional rights. He has decided to appeal. It has to be filed within 30 days of the June15 entry of judgement.

In the civil suit he lost, Pradhan had claimed that administrators violated his constitutional rights by keeping from him information he stores on A&M's computers and denying him a prompt hearing. Pradhan had also sued the university claiming he was a victim of racism and was being punished because he had been a vocal critic of the tenure review policy.

However, a previous court decision forced Pradhan to drop the discrimination charge and to cut the damage claim to $ 15.7 million from the originally sought $ 75 million.

Pradhan's woes began in 1997 when a system audit accused him of misappropriating more than $ 100,000 -- a revenue that was generated from a course he and others taught on computer-aided design. He was placed on paid leave in August 1997 and returned to the university a year later.

Pradhan said the money was spent on course expenses, including teacher pay and that the university was not entitled to the funds because it didn't own the rights to the course.

He also said that the course, though taught on campus was done through a private group of professors and no dollars from the National Science foundation were spent on it.

The audit report also claimed that Pradhan abused his position as faculty member while requiring his students to perform work for his three private businesses.

Pradhan emigrated to the US in 1970 earning his master's in electrical engineering from Brown University and his PhD from the University of Iowa. After teaching stints elsewhere, he moved to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1983 where he was tenured and his career finally took off. He won prestigious awards and positions, as well as fame for work in his speciality, fault-tolerant computing. Fault-tolerant computers keep processing data if the power supply or main processors fail.

Texas A&M University offered Pradhan a $ 2 million chair to leave the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He drew a salary of $ 182,000 and was given unbridled discretion over the endowment fund.

In November 1998, after more than a year of denying the accusations lodged against him, Pradhan pleaded guilty to abuse of official capacity, including 28 acts of misapplication of government property. He also served some time in prison earlier this year for unauthorized use of a photocopying machine.

Speaking from Texas, Pradhan is determined to stretch the fight to the very bitter end. After four years of setbacks, Pradhan who was terminated in 1999 is cautiously optimistic of his chances in his appeal.

"For the last four years, things have been going against me, but in 1998 I was reinstated and even my lawyers were shocked. So lawsuits are like the weather; it is difficult to predict what is on the jury's mind."

He then adds wryly," If all the lawsuits were fair, we wouldn't have people in Texas being executed for crimes they did no commit".

When asked why he felt he had been targeted for racial harassment when the other Indians in the university were not, Pradhan says, "The other Indians are quiet boys. Indians in this country like to kiss up to the whites. I didn't do it. I spoke out.

"Indians here lead a false life. They go to temples in the weekends, watch Indian movies after work and lead isolated lives. They don't mix with Americans. Tell me how many Indians are invited to American weddings or to a golf course? They lead isolated lives and stop their children from integrating too. I am an American and, like most Americans, did not feel scared to speak out my mind."

A professor from Texas A&M University, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, also said Pradhan had paid the price for being a little too outspoken. He said, "Everything revolves around allegations of careless accounting. Careless accounting is not a criminal act, if that were the case then the entire faculty would be in jail. He was picked out. It is difficult to say why he was picked out.

"There was racial harassment from day one, we all knew it, the department head and the dean's office were not able to stop it. But the university never shut this person up. How can you fire Pradhan but not this person who caused it all? It's a messy story. It was harassment motivated more by jealousy that took a racial turn."

The professor said he was also amazed at the speed with which the university rushed to file criminal proceedings without giving Pradhan a chance to defend himself.

"Neither the department of accounting nor the department head asked Pradhan for his side of the story. Things immediately went on a criminal path. This is a very odd set of circumstances since no money went into Pradhan's pocket."

The professor also questions the way the four 'safety nets' did not function in Pradhan's case. While not absolving Pradhan of any wrongdoing, he maintains, "Being careless is doing something wrong. The situation is not so black and white. Dr Pradhan made some irrational judgements but I don't think he did anything for direct personal gain. You depend on the system to point out that you can't do some things. Till all this happened the dean was enthused with his aggressiveness," said the professor.

Elaborating further on how the system failed Pradhan, he said, "If a person is not following rules there are at least four 'safety nets' which can tell that person he is not doing things the right way:

The first is the administrators and secretaries. The second safety net is the department of accounting, the third is the department head and the fourth is the dean's office. For some reason all these safety nets did not function in Pradhan's case. The department seemed to do things almost to entrap him."

About the allegation that Pradhan misused university funds and resources for his private companies, the Professor said, "Engineering schools all over the United States encourage their faculty to start companies, because it helps promote applications of research. There is a very thin line dividing work done for the companies and work done for the university."

A student of Pradhan has also alleged that Pradhan refused to sign his thesis till he completed some work for one of his companies. The professor does not buy that story.

"Anybody who has been in this business a long time has run into students, who for one reason or another just get out of control," he said.

Pradhan's personality also did not endear him to the university authorities. Outspoken and undiplomatic, Pradhan was a man proud of his accomplishments in his field and he did not bother to downplay them. His research is widely respected and he holds two US patents and has published a number of books and papers.

"Pradhan is a very proud man, very proud of his accomplishments as he should be. But pride can lead you to handle yourself in undiplomatic ways. He was more outspoken than others, though most of what he said was correct. Some of the faculty was jealous that he had the largest endowment chair in the university. He also lacked charisma. So if you interplay this with carelessness motivated by trying to do too many things for the university, a certain pride with what you're doing and telling the department how you feel it should be run, you end up with a lot of enemies! He also did not handle his lawyers well," said the professor.

Asked why Pradhan's offers to resign were not accepted by the university which, instead, decided to go ahead and take him to court, Scott Kelley, counsel for the university said, "Dr Pradhan made offers to resign, but he wanted to be paid for 2-3 years. He also wanted us to stop the criminal process, but we didn't have anything to do with it. The District Attorney was looking into it."

He denied that the university was refusing to part with information that Pradhan had stored on A&M computers. "As far as I know, he got back everything he asked for. A copy of the hard drive was made for the litigation process," said Kelley.

Unfortunately, the messy situation has meant that an illustrious career has come to a sad end. Pradhan was the recipient of a prestigious Fulbright Award, which was to have commenced now in Portugal. But the university and the ongoing lawsuits stopped him from accepting his new assignment.

"I think this is the end of his career in the US. He has been blackballed effectively in the US. Hopefully; some university outside the US will see him for what he is worth -- a valuable guy working in an interesting area. I really feel sorry for him. A guy who was in the pinnacle of his career, the best-paid professor in the university, in an exciting area, with people all over the world interested in his research... And now it is all lost," said the professor.

In the long run, no matter what the final outcome, there are no winners in this long and nasty battle between Pradhan and the university. Everybody has come out with their face blackened.

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