The Edge of Reason

A professor's failed climb up the ivory tower ends in accusations of a hoax.

Case Western Reserve academia gender discrimination
Ramani Pilla arrived at the police station that bitter December night prepared. She was, after all, a statistics professor. Numbers and data were her life.

So she brought a lawyer. And pictures of the evidence. Every detail of her story in place.

Last summer, she arrived home from a conference at Stanford to discover that someone had entered her office at Case Western Reserve, moved things around on her desk, and turned off the AC.

Then, in August, someone had slipped an envelope filled with "derogatory remarks" under her door. A week later, someone opened her departmental mail.

She started getting phone calls straight out of a horror flick. All she could hear was heavy breathing, then the dial tone.

By December, things had gotten worse. The latest anonymous note was a blatant threat -- albeit with curiously formal grammar.

"Last warning, 'F' bitch. You don't belong in the department. Be gone or else face dire circumstances!"

This hate mail, Pilla would later tell the FBI, was written by co-workers angry about a discrimination complaint she'd filed. She needed protection. Couldn't anyone help her?

A small woman with pride in her voice and suspicion flashing in her dark eyes, Pilla had been pummeling at the door of success since she'd arrived in America from India in the early '90s. As a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State, she was a promising student in the field of statistics. She would later use computer models to interpret data from images, helping to locate everything from land mines to cancerous tumors.

"She worked about as hard as you can imagine any graduate student doing," says her former adviser, Professor Bruce Lindsay.

But some found her ego tough to swallow. She had a strong sense of her own importance. Still, since being self-absorbed is more norm than crime in academia, it didn't cause much trouble for the bright young scholar.

After graduating, Pilla did a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and briefly worked as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Then, in 2002, she moved on to what she thought would be greener, more prestigious pastures: Case Western Reserve. She couldn't have been more wrong.

For a university acclaimed as a scientific powerhouse, Case's statistics department is an Achilles' heel. Housed in a drab building with bunker hallways and cramped classrooms, it's a place that prompts claustrophobia more than pride.

Ever since splitting off from the math department in 1994, it has struggled to stand alone, cycling through a string of temporary leaders -- some of whom weren't even native to the field. Most recently, an interim chairman borrowed from the math department was replaced with another temporary import -- from anthropology.

No matter who the university found to put in the director's chair, the department had a lingering reputation as a disaster area. Its faculty may have been respected scholars, but social skills were another matter. Former chemistry professor Cather Simpson describes them as "dysfunctional, impossible-to-deal-with, egotistical jerks."

They had so much trouble getting along that in 2004, a dean hired an outside committee to figure out what to do with the department. But there was too much chaos to fashion a solution. The committee's final report was never made public, but the basic message was "They don't know quite what to suggest," says former statistics professor Catherine Loader. "Nothing major happened as a result of that report."

The chaos had ripple effects. With their cheap labor, graduate students are the lifeblood of any research institution. But from year to year, one could never be sure how many students would be admitted to the department. Some years it was four, some years two. And at times there were none at all. This made it hard for professors like Pilla to do advanced research that depended on the grunt work of students.

The department also had trouble promoting its own rising stars. Loader came to Case in 2002 as an associate professor, but she did not have tenure -- the coveted guarantee of lifetime job security. During her four years there, Loader, Pilla, and another assistant professor, Nidhan Choudhuri, all applied for tenure or promotions, and all were rejected. Loader even had the unusual experience of being promoted to the rank of full professor -- thanks to the recommendations of faculty outside her department -- but still received no tenure. It was like being elected president, then told you only had one year to serve.

"They were just arbitrarily blocking people," she says.

James Alexander, chairman of the math department, who also headed statistics from 2002 until last summer, sees things a bit differently. He says each professor's situation was unique, and decisions were weighed by committees all the way up the chain of command.

Pilla did her best to fight the tide. She won a $400,000 award that the National Science Foundation gives to promising young scholars, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars more in grants from the Office of Naval Research. The university PR machine advertised her accomplishments on its website. She was invited to speak at Stanford and Oxford. By friends' accounts, she should have been a shoo-in for the coveted gold medal of tenure. Yet she was rejected -- twice.

"I saw Ramani as a highly skilled, highly talented young researcher," Loader says. But these skills were never enough to overcome Pilla's biggest hurdle: herself.

"She went into a nightmare department," says Simpson. "She's a difficult person. It was like putting a match to a fire keg."

It wasn't an unusual situation. Many scientists are short on social graces. Simpson remembers one professor clipping his toenails in a faculty meeting. But in Pilla's case, even her allies had trouble dealing with her. If you didn't avoid her, she could suck you into a conversation lasting an hour or two. And her aggressiveness scared them off.

She angered one colleague by submitting a paper for publication that they co-wrote -- without first getting the other woman's permission. Another time, when the university's PR department offered to highlight her research in a magazine story, she turned them down. She was still angry from the year before, when she was up for tenure and needed the publicity, and they had excluded her. "She doesn't help herself," says Simpson.

Loader believes colleagues were simply envious of Pilla's success. "Some people, I think, got jealous."

One student who admired her soon discovered others didn't feel the same way. Meridith Blevins requested that Pilla be her master's thesis adviser. She says Professor Alexander tried to discourage her, telling Blevins that Pilla didn't know enough about the program.

Alexander doesn't remember it that way. "I think I cautioned her as I would caution everybody, to make certain that she felt comfortable with that person."

Blevins, now a biostatistician at Brown, persisted and was happy with the result. "I found her really easy to work with and enthusiastic," she says. "She's definitely been a big influence. She helped me choose a good career path."

But Pilla didn't always find fans in the classroom. Kenny Long, a third-year math major, says she was "honestly one of the craziest professors I have ever had."

She would wander off topic and yell about small transgressions, such as students forgetting to staple their homework or silence their cell phones. "She would flip out. She would just start screaming," he says.

Once, a student's chair squeaked. Pilla thought it was a cell phone and started yelling. "I felt like I was in high school again," Long says.

Sophomore Alexander Gill took the outbursts more in stride. "She was a little eccentric, I guess." He would often skip her class because he "couldn't stand the sound of her voice."

One day, Gill and Long both recall Pilla complaining that she'd fallen down the stairs. She was in so much pain, she would take breaks every few minutes to hold her side in agony. Yet she refused to go to a doctor, saying she was too dedicated to her job to miss class.

Complaints about her teaching must have come up in job evaluations, because Pilla appeared aware of the problem. One day last fall a popular physics professor, Robert Brown, came to watch her class and provide tips. After he left, she spent half an hour rhapsodizing about how much she wished she could be like him.

Later, Gill stopped by her office to pick up some homework. She asked him what he thought of her class and how she compared to Brown. He didn't know what to say.

Pilla's superiors obviously weren't pleased with her performance. According to Loader, they didn't allow her to teach advanced courses related to her research or provide her with enough graduate-student workers. "She constantly was denied resources that simply should've been provided to a faculty member," Loader says.

Alexander disagrees, saying he once arranged for Pilla to teach a course specifically to attract grad students. Yet her talent at securing grants actually worked against her, since she would use the money to buy her way out of teaching to devote herself to research.

The first time Pilla applied for tenure, she was denied. Then, at the end of her third year, her superiors refused to renew her contract. According to a complaint Pilla filed, Mark Turner, dean of the college of arts and sciences, told her it was due to "insufficient performance and insufficient credentials." She hired a lawyer and got her contract renewed, although she still hadn't received tenure.

Finally, she played a trump card guaranteed to earn her more enemies: She filed a federal complaint alleging discrimination based on sex and nationality.

It was a loaded move. Case had already battled accusations of bias against female professors and had not fared well. In 2001, Carol Stepien, an aquatic biologist who was denied tenure twice, made national news.

Though she was regarded as a solid researcher who was widely published and brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money, Stepien was seen as demanding and assertive, and had some spats with students and colleagues. After her first tenure rejection, a faculty grievance panel found that the biology department may have discriminated against her. She won two more grievance hearings after that. But the university president dismissed the findings.

Finally, after she was forced out, Stepien sued and won a settlement. It included a $10,000 grant for her new lab at Cleveland State. She's now the director of the Lake Erie Research Center and a professor of ecology at the University of Toledo. A gag order prevents her from talking about the case.

By 2003, Case had started a special program, funded by the National Science Foundation, to help correct the persistent gap in salary and promotions between men and women.

It was into this breach that Pilla stepped. The university rumor mill, which churns with the velocity of prep school gossip, began to roar.

Simpson, an associate professor who already had tenure, grew angry at what she saw as a continued pattern of bias. She knew of a male science professor who was granted early tenure despite ethical questions about his work. Meanwhile, she had heard about the trouble Pilla was having. So in April 2006, Simpson wrote a letter to Provost John Anderson, complaining about bias and citing Pilla as an example.

"What I'm complaining about is not that Ramani is a genius sort of wonderful person who's fabulous in the classroom," Simpson says now. "But when this happens to a man, what gets said is, he needs some mentoring, he needs some training. And when it happens to a woman, my experience is, what gets said is 'We can't afford to have that here.'"

The provost never responded.

When faced with giving someone a job for life, it's hard not to sympathize with the people who refused Pilla's tenure. She had a reputation for strange behavior. It was tough to believe that gender was her problem.

The discrimination complaint was dismissed, the university says.

Meanwhile, Pilla's world was splintering. Multiple tenure rejections weren't only an ego blow -- they could spell the end of her academic career. She might be able to get hired at a less prestigious school. But it would be a pride-tumbling step for a scholar who'd already won national awards.

To make matters worse, last June Pilla lost her closest ally on campus when Loader returned to her native New Zealand. Those around Pilla noticed her desperation increasing. Colleagues began keeping their distance and ignoring her complaints.

She says she received the first threatening letter in August. Then, as the hate mail continued, she tried talking to campus security and the University Circle police, apparently without success. In December, she went with her lawyer to the Cleveland Fifth District Police Station. The next month, she filed suit against Case, alleging the university had failed to protect her from the threats.

By January, Pilla was discussing the threats with FBI agents. By February, she told them she'd received a total of four menacing letters. According to court documents, she named three unidentified suspects, all of whom worked at Case. She thought the letters were in retaliation for her discrimination complaint.

But somewhere along the way, her story must have unraveled. According to the FBI, she eventually admitted that she'd written the letters herself.

The feds filed criminal charges of their own, alleging that she "perpetrated a hoax" on Case and the FBI. She pleaded not guilty. Now, the esteemed scholar is facing the prospect of a criminal trial and up to three years in prison.

She's also fighting the backlash from an angry employer. "Case Western Reserve is just fanning the fires," says Pilla's lawyer, Denise Knecht. "They are doing everything they can to destroy Dr. Pilla. They're attacking her academic publications. They've not let her come on campus for several months. They're doing everything they can to go after her."

So Pilla spends her days in a comfy, sun-drenched apartment near Coventry. Five times in the last four years, she's called Cleveland Heights police to complain about such hardships as noisy neighbors, a dog barking, petty theft from her car, and a bat in her apartment.

On an April morning when snow still covers her front yard, Pilla reacts graciously to a surprise visit from a reporter. She invites her inside, offering coffee and a seat on the couch.

The professor apologizes for her sweats and uncombed hair. It's early, and the laptop on the couch indicates she's been interrupted from working on her research.

She explains politely that she would like to tell her story, but not now. She hasn't been feeling well, you see, and would like some time to prepare.

Just a few days later, her tone has changed. She's angry, defensive, and doesn't want to talk. "Whatever you heard is not the truth," she says.

As the questions come, the panic in her voice increases. She reverts to repeating variations of the same sentence, over and over again.

"I've done great work at Case, and I have nothing more to say."

"I have done great work, and I have enjoyed doing great work."

"I have done great teaching. I've enjoyed it and continue to do great work."

When she's finished, the line goes dead.

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