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A former Arkansas State University student from India has sued ASU claiming she was unfairly expelled.
The suit, by Moytri Roy Chowdhury, has stirred interest among others because ASU hosts more than 400 international students because a professors' group has raised civil rights questions about her treatment.
The suit names ASU, its Board of Trustees, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Research G. Daniel Howard and Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Research Glen Jones.
Chowdhury received a student visa in 2005 to pursue a doctoral program in molecular biosciences at the Arkansas Bioscience Institute at ASU. The focus of her research was genetically modified plants. She worked under the supervision John Hubstenberger.
According to a former employee of the ABI lab, writing on behalf of Chowdhury in a letter provided to the Times, the work environment at the lab was “not conducive to research.” The employee was told by Hubstenberger that she was not to assist Chowdhury if asked.
“I witnessed him yelling at Moytri on one account that I can remember, maybe two. He yelled at her loud enough for several to hear, and it was over nothing. He never assisted her in her work,” the employee wrote. “She was even told at one point that because she was an international student, she did not deserve to be treated well, because no one really had to.”
According to the complaint filed in Craighead County Circuit Court, Chowdhury decided, with the permission of her advisor, to move her plants from the ABI lab to the greenhouse run by the university's agriculture department in the spring of 2008.
When school officials learned the plants had been moved, Chowdhury was told she had violated the institute's bio-safety policy and instructed to leave the university. Chowdhury claims that she did not violate any ASU or ABI policy. At the time, the ABI had no policy regarding the transport of genetically modified plants, so Chowdhury followed guidelines set forth by researchers at Virginia Tech, a common practice at the ABI.
Her plants, which formed the basis of a three-year-long research project leading to a doctoral dissertation, were destroyed. Associate Vice Chancellor Glen Jones, wrote a letter to Chowdhury telling her she was “out-of-status” and was “hereby advised to leave the country as soon as possible.”
Dr. William Maynard, a history professor at ASU and chair of the ASU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, says Chowdhury was dismissed without due process.
“What they did was convene a kangaroo court,” he says. “She was given a hearing in front of Howard and Jones - two senior people on the campus – and she had no representation. She was intimidated. They will tell you that what they did constituted proper procedure, but it does not and we in the AAUP will say that there was no following of the handbook.”
As a foreign student, Chowdhury's legal status depended on enrollment in the university. Once she was terminated, she ran the risk of being deported. That's when Donn Mixon, an attorney from Jonesboro, stepped in.
Mixon and ASU lawyers reached an agreement to restore Chowdhury's status as a student through the end of the semester. The agreement also required ASU to correct her status with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. According to the complaint, ASU complied, but then terminated Chowdhury's status again without her knowledge/
“We worked it out with ASU that they were going to send the letter through the appropriate person and it turns out the vice chancellor wrote a letter that was highly critical of the student,” Mixon says. “So, they made it worse and it appears as though they intentionally did so.”
Howard, Jones and Hubstenberger could not be reached for comment. Calls from the Times were directed to Lucinda McDaniel, university counsel. She issued the following statement: “Arkansas State University always strives to treat all of its students fairly and appropriately and certainly we think that we have done so with respect to Ms. Chowdhury.”
ASU argues that it cannot be sued in state court because of constitutional immunity. Mixon, however, who is no longer Chowdhury's lawyer, disagrees. “To the extent that they violated any agreement, that's a breach of contract and they can be sued for that,” he says.
Chowdhury has since transferred to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She is now represented by Bobby Lee Odom. Odom would not comment on the status of the case.
Chowdhury is seeking monetary damages for lost tuition, loss of earning potential, lost wages and mental anguish. No matter the outcome, Mixon says he doesn't want to see this happen to another student.
“This was just a young woman who had come to this country to further her education,” he says. “I don't care what she did or did not do. It doesn't make any difference. She doesn't deserve to be treated this way.”
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