Ohio State University officials are taking steps to terminate an associate professor in the Fisher College of Business accused of steering a $1.6 million project with the Ohio Department of Medicaid to the corporation she founded. But professor Deborah Mitchell is fighting for her job, noting that various professors attest to her innocence and that no witnesses have testified against her.
The Academic Affairs and Student Life committee of the OSU Board of Trustees voted Thursday to approve the termination of Mitchell, a clinical associate professor of marketing who has been with Fisher College since 2012. The matter is scheduled to go before the full board for a vote at its meeting Friday.
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A complaint filed in January 2017 accused Mitchell of violating faculty conflict-of-commitment and conflict-of-interest policies and the no-solicitation clause in her contract with the Fisher Executive Education program, according to a memo from Ohio State President Michael V. Drake to the board and other university documents. The Executive Education program works with individuals and groups to “create a think-tank environment” that increases success, according to a description on the college’s website.
The complaint alleged that after Mitchell served as an academic director on a project for the Department of Medicaid through the Executive Education program, she improperly steered a $1.6 million project with the department to CyprusTree Corp., the company she founded and leads. The contracts with CyprusTree provided “substantially similar training and education as the Executive Education programs,” the complaint said.
“It appears that Dr. Mitchell used her involvement in Executive Education’s programs to seize an opportunity arising out of the university’s work that could have potentially been performed by the university for herself,” wrote Paul C. Velasco, a former executive director of Executive Education who complained about Mitchell to Fisher College Dean Anil Makhija in January 2017.
Mitchell’s case wound its way through numerous administrators and university committees, including an appeal, which ended in a recommendation of termination at Thursday’s board committee meeting.
In a letter to the trustees committee, Mitchell said she had been denied the chance to speak to board members in person at their meeting. She wrote that the University Senate Faculty Hearing Committee, which reviewed her case, misrepresented the conclusions of her department chair by stating that he found probable cause that Mitchell had violated policies, when in fact, she wrote, he did not confirm that any egregious acts had occurred. Those misrepresentations, she wrote, were passed on to university administrators and President Drake.
In an attachment to her letter, which trustees did not mention or distribute publicly Thursday, Mitchell acknowledged that she did unknowingly violate a university policy when she failed to file necessary paperwork. But she added that the same policy has been consistently violated, knowingly and unknowingly, by a vast majority of male faculty members in the Fisher College of Business for years.
Mitchell provided the attachment to The Dispatch, saying it was “disappointing” that it was not mentioned during the trustees’ committee meeting Thursday. In the attachment, she pointed out that three “esteemed professors” have signed written declarations and testified in person to her innocence. She also said no one has testified against her or offered evidence. The original complainant, Velasco, has since left the university.
In the attachment, Mitchell called for the board to delay its decision until an independent investigator could review transcripts and written declarations in her case, and until the university’s new Office of Institutional Equity can conclude its independent investigation involving Mitchell’s notices of gender discrimination.
“I have been fighting against this kind of duplicitousness for the last three years of my life,” she wrote in her original letter. “I don’t know how else to be rational about it. I don’t know how else to introduce facts into a system that refuses to hear them.”
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