UCLA battles Asian professors

University report alleges students were charged extra fees in dentistry school, but faculty see racial politics and retaliation over whistleblowing

September 2, 2022
University of California, Los Angeles
Source: iStock

The University of California, Los Angeles is involved in a legal dispute with three ethnic Asian professors pushed from its top-ranked dentistry school who face allegations of benefiting from unauthorised fees levied against international students – claims that, they say, reflect retaliation over complaints of racial bias and misconduct.

The professors left UCLA, with undisclosed settlement terms, after being accused in 2018 of benefiting from at least two foreign students who paid extra money in the hopes of improving their research opportunities in their highly regarded programme.

The three accused faculty, however, include a prominent professor of Taiwanese origin who alleged the case is baseless and constitutes persecution after he brought complaints of sexual harassment and research misconduct against a senior colleague.

UCLA subjected the professor, Eric Ting, “to a number of meritless ‘audits’ and ‘investigations’ in an effort to punish him into silence and drive him out of the university”, he said in one court filing.

Dr Ting and the other two professors – none of whom have been identified by name in a current round of court filings over public disclosure of the UCLA investigation – also have suggested they faced retaliation over their support for an Asian candidate in 2016 when Paul Krebsbach was appointed dean of UCLA’s School of Dentistry.

UCLA said that for privacy reasons, it could not discuss details of its case against the professors. In a brief statement, the university confirmed it had investigated the alleged payments by the students and said it has since “taken several steps to ensure improved adherence to School of Dentistry and university policies”.

The case is in state court over the question of whether UCLA should be allowed to release a redacted version of an outside investigative report that it commissioned to explore the matter. Dr Ting and the two other professors involved in the case are fighting the report’s release, arguing that it contains a series of baseless accusations. A spokesman for Dr Ting initially said that UCLA had promised not to release it, but later acknowledged the university had agreed only to give the professors an opportunity to fight in court any outside requests to obtain a copy.

That outside review was conducted for UCLA by the Hueston Hennigan law firm, which said it too could not comment on the matter.

A court filing in the case described Hueston Hennigan as having interviewed more than 40 faculty, including the three professors, and reviewed more than 300,000 emails. Its report, finalised in 2020, concluded that the situation did involve misconduct, including payments from the students of unidentified amounts that the faculty disguised and benefited from via incentive and bonus compensation based on the payments, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Attorneys for the professors argue that that is a misrepresentation of a UCLA fund that previously existed for general research expenses and into which students could contribute money.

Dr Ting, the executive director of the International Orthodontics Foundation, is now an adjunct professor at the Forsyth Institute. He said he first faced internal retaliation at UCLA after requesting a leave of absence in 2017 to help care for his father in Taiwan. 

Attorneys for Dr Ting and the other two former UCLA professors said: “Our clients vehemently deny the meritless accusations made in the Hueston Hennigan report. As we have stated repeatedly in public court filings, we believe our clients’ rights to due process were violated during the course of the investigation. 

"We question the pretexts under which it was launched, the way in which it was conducted, and the reasons why it has now been leaked, especially since the UCLA administration knows well that a truly independent and transparent investigation would have shown that the accusations were entirely unfounded."

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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