Wright State University has demoted or fired three top-level administrators amid a federal criminal investigation into the university’s work visa program, university officials confirmed Monday.
The investigation began in the spring with “credible evidence” that between two and five years ago not every employee sponsored by WSU under a H-1B work visa was actually working at the university, according to a statement Monday from WSU President David Hopkins and university Trustee President Michael Bridges.
“That would violate federal law, and it concerns us greatly,” the statement said.
University officials declined to comment beyond the statement.
The statement was the first explanation of the nature of the investigation since May 4. That’s when the university put on paid leave Provost Sundaram Narayanan — second in charge of the school — as well as senior advisor to the provost Ryan Fendley, university chief general counsel Gwen Mattison and Phani Kidambi, lecturer and former head of the school’s international enrollment program.
Monday’s statement said Fendley no longer works for the university; Narayanan has been terminated as provost, but is still tenured faculty; and Kidambi has been terminated from his post at Wright State Research Institute, though he is still a union-represented lecturer. The statment makes no mention of Mattison.
“People expect great universities to do great things, but they also expect us to follow the rules,” the statement says. “We want to comply with the law in every facet of what we do. But there are times when every human enterprise falls short of that goal. When that happens, those responsible must be held accountable.”
While the investigation continues, the statement says the university has already decided to expand its office of general counsel and it recently confirmed it was staffing up research compliance at WSRI and related agencies.
The statement says Wright State’s work visa program uses H-1B visas issued by the federal government “to sponsor highly trained professionals from another country to come to the United States and work in a specialty occupation. This typically means areas like biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and computer science.”
Wright State and other universities have sponsored H-1B visas since the 1990s, usually fewer than 50 per year, on the condition those employees work for Wright State or — more recently — its applied research arm, WSRI.
“Our research institute is nationally recognized for its work. It facilitates technology development and provides innovative solutions by conducting responsive research through collaborative partnerships,” the statement says. “The institute has helped create American jobs and expand and transform domestic technology.”
Before he became provost in March 2013, Narayanan helped found WSRI as dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Fendley was formerly director of WSRI. Kidambi was a research engineer at WSRI and, before that, a director of international programs at the college where Narayanan was dean. As general counsel, Mattison processed H-1B visa applications.
“It is important to remember that the H-1B program is just a tiny fraction of what our university does,” the statement says. “Perhaps even more importantly, we have no reason to believe that this situation will affect the primary mission of the university: student success.”
The stakes are huge if the university is faulted for flouting federal laws. It relied heavily on student visas to balance its budget in recent years, and the loss of the ability to sponsor visas would be costly. WSRI relies on security clearances to get federal contracts, and just last week announced it received an Air Force research contract worth $42.5 million.
The investigation itself could cost the university $233,000 in legal fees plus more than $200,000 paid to the four employees since they were placed on leave May 4.
In a separate statement to the university faculty, Hopkins said that he was instructed not to publicly discuss the investigation until now.
“We have provided tens of thousands of pages of documents, and the investigators have interviewed more than a dozen members of our university,” he wrote. “In addition, we have engaged with the Office of the Ohio Attorney General and assembled a team of external experts to assist us with our own internal review of our processes and procedures.”
One recommendation from those outside experts was to split the provost position. Effective immediately, the statement said, Tom Sudkamp will take over as the schools’ chief academic officer. And Mark Polatajko will take over as chief operating officer. Narayanan served in both roles.
“We will get this right because we know it matters,” Hopkins wrote to university staff. “Our work matters. I am confident that we will emerge from this ordeal stronger and with more capacity in our quest to be the Best University FOR the World.”