DePauw psychology professor Akshat Vyas suspended amid numerous allegations

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In the basement of Harrison Hall cages of finches occupy a research laboratory. Their keeper, after facing serious allegations, had to abandon them.
Exactly two weeks after the announcement of psychology professor Akshat Vyas’ suspension from DePauw University, the investigation process continues, though a hearing date has yet to be determined.
After Vice President for Academic Affairs Larry Stimpert received multiple emails from students, faculty and staff regarding Vyas’ inappropriate conduct, he suggested that University President Brian Casey suspend the professor. Under suspension, Vyas is still a full member of the faculty and still receives his pay and benefits from DePauw. Casey heeded Stimpert’s suggestion and decided to suspend Vyas.
“It was in the last ten days that matters seemed acute,” Casey said. “The situation seemed to be accelerating to the point where I said and the Academic Affairs office asked me to take extraordinary measures.” Effective Friday, April 4, Vyas was suspended, and an investigation by Stimpert began.
Per the faculty governance process in the faculty handbook, the proper procedure for “dismissal or non-reappointment based on complaints” states that the vice president for academic affairs will receive complaints, contact the faculty member in question and conduct a preliminary investigation. Once the preliminary investigation has taken place, the vice president for academic affairs brings evidence to the Committee on Faculty (COF). The committee then conducts a hearing and provides a recommendation to the university president.
Though Stimpert said he and faculty members are unable to comment on the inappropriate conduct they’ve witnessed, email correspondence from Vyas to Matt Hertenstein, the psychology department head, indicates frustration over non-compliance with the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Vyas oversaw a laboratory of finches that his students researched. The “Cool Peeps” lab, as Vyas called it, did not have proper drainage for the birds’ waste. The birds were housed in Harrison Hall, which does not have proper facilities for washing the cages.
Vyas also said in an email that he had chemicals in his lab that may not be compliant with university guidelines.
In the same e-mail, Vyas wrote that he interacted with Public Safety and Human Resources regarding his disheveled appearance and per university recommendation he sought psychiatric help. Vyas also wrote that he felt the criticism he received from the university was unfounded.
“My interactions with the offices of the dean of the faculty, offices of the HR (Human resources) and the Public Safety make me believe that I have been a victim of a pattern of harassment,” Vyas wrote in his email.
In the last two weeks, Vyas’s life has unraveled.
“DePauw has made my life hell,” he said in a phone call made to The DePauw late Thursday night. “I am very strongly considering resigning.”
Casey and Stimpert said the suspension was based on inappropriate behavior, including sending emails that were deemed aggressive.
Vyas sent some representatives of the IACUC emails every day for a month seeking help in getting proper facilities for his finches. This instance, along with others, prompted Casey to action. He said this is the first suspension case he has dealt with in his six years at DePauw.
“Presidents need to act very cautiously of the removal of a member of the faculty,” Casey said. “It’s a rare thing.”
And this case in particular is made murkier by Vyas’ immigrant status. The professor has a work visa through DePauw that also covers his wife Soma Dixit and his son N.V. Should the COF and Casey elect to dismiss Vyas as a faculty member, he and his family could be considered illegal aliens almost immediately. They could then be deported to their native India.
After experiencing Vyas’ extreme behavior in her home, Dixit filed a protection order against her husband on Thursday, April 10. In her protection request, Dixit said she had been the victim of domestic or family violence at the hand of her husband. The order details 19 specific instances in which Vyas physically and/or verbally abused her.
A family friend who wished to remain anonymous said he and his wife witnessed a change in Vyas over the last few months.
“To some extent he’s a different person than he was even last semester,” he said. “The reason behind the change is kind of a mystery.”
The family friend said the situations of Vyas’ suspension and his removal from Dixit’s home have been troubling and made more difficult by the family’s immigration status.
“She is very concerned about her immigration status,” he said.
In Dixit’s descriptions in the protection order request form, she said Vyas mentioned the state of their visas on more than one occasion and brandished his power over her visa. She also wrote about Vyas’ state of paranoia and psychological instability.
“He said he was scared of the cops,” Dixit wrote. “He is scared of everyone.”
In her protective order request, Dixit also commented that Vyas’ relationships with his students were becoming a concern.
“Akshat has some very questionable relationships with some DePauw girl students,” Dixit wrote. “As a neuroscientist, he studies female sexual behavior. When I ask him about the relationships, he says that is part of his job and that his students are special to him.”
Vyas taught a “Sex and Behavior” course at DePauw that featured conversations that sophomore Karina Adams said contained material that was controversial. Adams, a student in the class and Vyas’ lab manager, said Vyas never overstepped any boundaries in or outside the classroom.
“The topic he taught could easily be misperceived,” Adams said, “but it was never his intention to say anything inappropriate. It all came from the textbook. It was just a risky subject.”
Students enrolled in Vyas’ classes are now under the tutelage of Matt Hertenstein and Kevin Moore. Hertenstein now oversees the senior psychology members as they complete their theses.
The laboratory research has been ended indefinitely and university staff members, according to an email to students from Stimpert, are caring for the finches.
“We felt like this is what we had to do for this university,” Stimpert said. “We want to minimize the disruption for students.”
Adams said she felt disappointed that months of research are being discontinued. On Thursday, she went in search of a new work-study position to fill her time for the rest of the semester.
“I wish it was still continuing in the way it was before,” she said. “It’s a strange experience having a professor disappear in a way.”
Sophomore Hunter Wilson agreed that having a new professor enter the classroom five weeks before semester’s end has been a difficult transition for his Introduction to Psychology class.
“There is an invisible barrier between the new professor and the class,” Wilson said. “It’s weird, almost like a different class.”
 

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