ASU professor files lawsuit against former head of Knowledge Enterprise

Sethuraman Panchanathan is accused of retaliation, gender discrimination and breach of contract in the suit filed in federal court

An ASU professor has filed suit against ASU and former executive vice president of ASU's Knowledge Enterprise, Sethuraman Panchanathan, for alleged breach of contract and gender discrimination, among other complaints.

Cynthia Sagers, a professor and former vice president for research at Knowledge Enterprise, alleges Panchanathan created a hostile work environment and cost her the opportunity of moving up within the University by demoting her.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court in February, Sagers alleges she was in line to take over Panchanathan's role within the Knowledge Enterprise if he were to be confirmed as the director of the National Science Foundation, but Panchanathan demoted her shortly after his nomination.

Panchanathan is currently on an extended leave of absence from the University after being appointed NSF director by former President Donald Trump in June 2020.

According to the lawsuit, Sagers was presumed to be Panchanathan's successor "given her rank, qualification over other candidates, and interest in the position."

Instead, Panchanathan told Sagers in a January 2020 meeting he planned on transitioning her to a 50% administrative, 50% faculty position in June 2020 before transitioning her to a 100% faculty position in July, after already having completed a positive performance review with human resources at the Knowledge Enterprise.

According to the lawsuit, the demotion would require Sagers work remotely from the Polytechnic campus, "effectively exiling her from the university," and the second demotion would come with a 25% salary reduction.

The State Press' employee salary database shows Sagers' salary was $275,000 in 2019 as vice president of research at Knowledge Enterprise and was $123,750 in 2020 as a professor at the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

In April 2020, after Panchanathan informed Sagers of his plans to demote her, Sagers sent a letter to ASU detailing her grievances against Panchanathan's treatment of her and others in the office, the lawsuit said. 

After investigating Sagers' complaints, ASU "inexplicably decided to demote Dr. Sagers," effective Dec. 1, 2020, the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit claims Panchanathan was displeased with the number of small research proposals Sagers was bringing in, though Sagers told him this was not part of her responsibilities as vice president of research. Instead, she told Panchanathan her role was focused on bringing in larger proposals. 

In the lawsuit, Sagers alleges the demotion precludes her from consideration for a vice president for research position at any other university, "in effect dealing a death-blow to her career aspirations."

Other employees were also subjected to "hostile, volatile, inappropriate and disparate treatment by Dr. Panchanathan," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit states "Dr. Panchanathan led the office with fear and intimidation and routinely retaliated against employees who expressed concern regarding his behavior by subjecting them to adverse treatment including hostility, demotion, and even termination of employment without just cause."

Sagers is now a faculty member with CISA at ASU's Polytechnic campus, but is currently searching for positions elsewhere.

According to University spokesperson Katie Paquet, the University has conducted an internal review of the allegations made by Sagers.

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

Neither Panchanathan nor Sagers responded to requests for comment.


Reach the reporter at rpriest2@asu.edu and follow @reaganspriest on Twitter.

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