The accused academic, Professor Ramamohanarao “Rao” Kotagiri, will be “retiring on April 17 to pursue other opportunities”, according to an email recently sent to colleagues by a senior university figure.
However, the student’s lawyer, Aki Munir from Arnold Thomas and Becker, told The Age Professor Kotagiri’s departure from the university was a condition of the legal settlement and that he resigned from his senior post with the university’s computer science department.
Professor Kotagiri had been employed by the university for almost 40 years when he was accused in court documents of exploiting his role as a supervisor to arrange private meetings with an international student during her doctorate studies.
Between June 2014 and April 2016, the 69-year-old academic is accused of inappropriately touching or groping the woman on more than a dozen occasions, according to a statement of claim filed with the court in 2017.
Professor Kotagiri allegedly demanded the student attend his office or Carlton home on the pretence they needed to discuss technical aspects of her studies. He also threatened to remove himself as supervisor if she refused to meet.
Other sexual assaults are alleged to have occurred when he escorted her to the gym and in a car park at the Carlton campus.
“The second defendant [Professor Kotagiri] repeatedly asked the plaintiff to meet him in his office. He intimidated the plaintiff into doing so by making it clear that he was in control of her candidature, ” according to the statement of claim.
Professor Kotagiri denied all allegations in a statement of defence filed in December 2018.
The student, who has asked not to be identified, made a formal complaint to the university in May 2016, before suspending her studies because of a significant mental health issue that required hospitalisation. A complaint was also made to Victoria Police in November 2016 but no charges were ever laid against the professor.
The University of Melbourne was named as the first defendant in legal documents and as part of the case was accused of failing to disclose previous complaints made against Professor Kotagiri by other female students.
An independent investigator appointed by the university allegedly uncovered other complaints made by at least two former students against Professor Kotagiri.
The university was aware in September 2014 of an allegation of inappropriate touching by the professor in 2012, while another case related to alleged misconduct between 2009 and 2012, according to an amended statement of claim.
However, the student was advised in September 2016 that no action would be taken against the long-serving professor.
Ms Munir said they only became aware of the other complaints during pre-trial discovery.
Ms Munir said she was astonished the university had failed to discipline Professor Kotagiri, who continued to mentor female PhD students without supervision.
“Our client showed great strength in her battle for justice against a renowned university and an eminent professor. The university’s failure to adequately address the sexual harassment complaints was negligent given the obvious power imbalance between a student and a professor,” Ms Munir said.
“As part of the settlement, the student insisted that Professor Kotagiri resign from his position so that he was no longer a risk to other female students and staff,” she said.
The University of Melbourne released a statement but did not respond to specific questions from The Age.
“We can confirm the Professor is no longer working at the University of Melbourne. The matter has been settled and it would be inappropriate to comment on specific details of the case,” a university spokesman said.
“Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell has made it clear that he is committed to tackling sexual assault and harassment head-on and the university will not tolerate this behaviour,” the spokesman said.
Professor Kotagiri did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In a statement, the student said she was “deeply disappointed” by the university’s attempt to protect its reputation, which she believed had potentially endangered other female students and staff in the school of computing and information systems.
She said the university had offered no support, but threatened to suspend or cancel her PhD studies when she was on stress leave because of the alleged assaults.
“And despite all this, including the $700,000 compensation payment, the university still thought it was appropriate to farewell Professor Kotagiri with compliments and honours. The university has … shown its complete disregard for the victims,” she said.
On March 20, an email from a senior university figure advised colleagues of Professor Kotagiri’s imminent ”retirement”.
The email made no mention of the harassment allegations or the recent compensation payment, but detailed his decorated career including academic achievements and membership of several prestigious fellowships.
“He has received many awards and honours for his research in computer science. He has successfully graduated 73 PhD students and mentored more than 25 postdoctoral Fellows,” the email said.
“We thank Roa for his dedication and service over the 40 years and wish him all the best for his future endeavours.”
The case comes almost 30 years after the sexual harassment scandal at the university’s Ormond College documented by Garner in The First Stone.
In 1991, the university failed to thoroughly investigate complaints by two women who said they were groped by residential college master Alan Gregory at an end-of-year dinner.
Mr Gregory denied the claims and was cleared of sexual assault charges in court, but eventually left the university following intense criticism over its handling of the matter.
Senior Crime Reporter