ASU Office-Drama Lawsuit Names Trump-Appointed Top Scientist

Sethuraman Panchanathan is on leave from ASU while he heads a federal research agency.
Sethuraman Panchanathan is on leave from ASU while he heads a federal research agency. ASU
The head of the federal agency responsible for funding scientific research is being sued over allegations that he created a hostile workplace while serving as a vice president at Arizona State University.

The federal lawsuit says that Sethuraman Panchanathan, as head of ASU's prestigious Knowledge Enterprise research program, behaved inappropriately and committed retaliation by demoting a subordinate who complained about him, banishing her to the university's West Valley campus.

The subordinate was ASU's vice president for research, Cynthia Sagers, who would have been next in line for Panchanathan's ASU job when he took the federal appointment, according to her lawsuit, which she filed in February. ASU investigated Sagers' allegations of retaliation after her lawyers intervened, the suit claims, but allowed the demotion anyway.

Documents show that Sagers herself had been accused of making ASU staff "fearful" because of her complaints, and they had heard her making condescending remarks about ASU leadership, but her attorneys claim that those allegations were only raised after Panchanathan cracked down on her.

Sagers is currently still a professor at ASU after her demotion. She declined to speak with New Times through an attorney, citing her current search for jobs elsewhere. Sagers' attorneys failed to return repeated messages.

click to enlarge Cynthia Sagers is suing ASU. - ASU
Cynthia Sagers is suing ASU.
Panchanathan is currently on long-term leave from the university after former President Donald Trump tapped him to head the National Science Foundation, an $8.5 billion federal agency that funds around a quarter of the research at higher-ed institutions.

Before starting that job last June, Panchanathan was ASU's senior vice president of the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development and the leader of the university's research, entrepreneurship, and economic development efforts. He's been a key part of President Michael Crow's longtime campaign to turn the school into a serious research institution.

Panchanathan did not respond to calls or texts. A spokesperson for the National Science Foundation referred an inquiry from New Times to ASU.

"We are aware of the lawsuit and have fully investigated the claims brought forward by Ms. Sagers and found them to be unsubstantiated," university spokesperson Katie Paquet said in an email. "Beyond that, we will not comment on this pending litigation."

The lawsuit claims that soon after Sagers came to ASU from Oregon State University in 2018, she and other employees were subjected to unspecified "hostile, volatile, inappropriate, and disparate" treatment by Panchanathan that worsened over time.

After she shared her concerns with human resources during a routine assessment in 2019, the university launched an investigation, the lawsuit alleges. In response, Panchanathan began focusing on Sagers' performance and, despite a successful performance review, told her in January 2020 that he planned to demote her. The demotion cut her $275,000 salary by 25 percent and required her to work from ASU's West Valley Polytechnic Campus.

Sagers' attorneys sent a letter to the university contesting the move at the time, but ASU moved ahead with the demotion in December 2020 after conducting an investigation into her allegations of retaliation.

The lawsuit accuses ASU of violating its contract with Sagers, ignoring Arizona's whistleblower statute, and engaging in gender discrimination by promoting an allegedly less-experienced male colleague instead of her as the interim head of the Knowledge Enterprise. It asks for unspecified damages from the university and claims that Sagers was not the only one affected by Panchanathan's alleged behavior.

The lawsuit comes as the STEM field undergoes an ongoing reckoning around issues of gender-based discrimination and hostile work environments. The National Science Foundation has waded into the struggle, establishing a policy in 2018 that requires institutions to report findings of harassment by grant recipients and the foundation to consider withdrawing funding as a result.

ASU's Knowledge Enterprise is currently being lead by Sally Morton, who came to Arizona from Virginia Tech in February to replace the interim head of the organization. The university says she's the first woman to hold the role.
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter