Padmapriya Ashokkumar came to America seeking education and a path to a better life.
The young Indian woman began work on a doctorate in computer science in September 2002 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She already had earned a master’s in computer science in India and began studying ways to improve computer software usability.
Within four years, however, she had stopped working with her research adviser, and in 2007, she filed a plagiarism complaint against him. In April 2007, a university committee upheld her complaint, saying her former adviser had plagiarized her work. The committee also dismissed a plagiarism complaint filed by Ashokkumar’s former adviser against her.
In April of this year, Ashokkumar filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska against six of her former professors and administrators at UNL, alleging they retaliated against her and forced her out of her doctoral program because of her complaint against the former adviser.
Friday, she spoke about the effects of the past six years.
“Emotionally, it has been very difficult, very painful for me,” she said.
UNL leaders declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In it, Ashokkumar alleges she began working with then-UNL computer science professor Scott Henninger in September 2002 on her doctoral thesis, which focused on improving software usability. In April 2006, she said, she ended their collaboration, frustrated by his inability to help her get papers published.
UNL professors Sebastian Elbaum and Lorin Hochstein took over as her advisers, and in January 2007, she and the new advisers submitted a paper to a software engineering conference. Henninger protested, saying it infringed on his own research.
Ashokkumar then filed a plagiarism complaint, alleging a paper Henninger had published the previous year used her work without giving her credit. He, in turn, filed a complaint against her, alleging the paper she submitted with her new advisers infringed upon his work.
University leaders tried to get Ashokkumar to settle her complaint outside the formal investigation process, but she refused because they required her to allow Henninger to serve on the committee that eventually would approve or reject her final thesis. A committee eventually dismissed Henninger’s complaint but found he had, in fact, plagiarized her work.
Ashokkumar alleges that UNL staff, angry at her unwillingness to settle the plagiarism complaint outside the formal process, refused to assign her a new adviser unless she was willing to start on an entirely new thesis. Unwilling to give up the five year’s worth of work she had done, Ashokkumar refused to start work on a new thesis and stopped enrolling in classes at UNL.
Eventually, the university dropped her from her doctoral program.
In a court brief, the university denies that faculty and staff refused to provide Ashokkumar with a new adviser on her existing topic. The university also argues she has failed to provide proof the defendants acted out of a retaliatory motive.
Ashokkumar, who now works as a software engineer, is seeking unspecified damages for loss of potential income and emotional distress, anxiety and depression. She also wants to be allowed to finish her doctoral program at UNL using her past research or be granted damages to use to complete it elsewhere.
Ashokkumar said she is earning about $20,000 less a year than she would be if she had her doctorate.
“I feel the life that I have isn’t exactly how I would envision it to be,” she said. “None of this is my fault.”