I am a Ph.D. Candidate in Finance at Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Please read through and judge for yourself whether my previous advisors Heitor Almeida and Rustom Irani tried to sabotage my career. Complaining to the university further increased my hardship. Although Heitor emailed me accepting his mistake and apparently trying to bribe me, the university refuses to take official cognizance of the matter.
Sabotage of My Job Prospects:
After completing my MBA from the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, I worked extensively in the banking and finance industry. While working in the industry, I had seen the impact of share pledges by insiders on firms' performance, and hence, chose it as the topic of my dissertation. To my knowledge, my first paper “On value implications of insider pledging of shares” (Outstanding Doctoral Student Paper, Southern Finance Association 2018) is the only paper to provide a comprehensive perspective of share pledges. In this paper, I identify the two types of share pledges by insiders - for obtaining personal loans and guaranteeing loans to the firm - and show their contrasting effects on the performance and valuation of firms. (The paper is also called “Does pledging of shares by controlling shareholders always destroy firm value?” at some places.)
During the summer vacation in 2018, Rustom Irani met with me at his office and said that he loved my first paper on share pledges. He told me that in his opinion I should be teaching at a place like Yale University and requested me to keep him in my advisory committee, which I did. The main results of my job market paper and a rough draft were already done. Rustom said that my job market paper was even better than the previous one and kept cajoling me to make him the Chair of the committee. I refused and told him that I will not replace Heitor as the Chair of my committee.
After joining the committee, Rustom asked me not to talk to anyone else about my research or joining the advisory committee. Only he will talk about my research to the professors on my advisory committee and people outside of it. I had informed Prof. George Pennacchi about my research and he had talked to Heitor about me. Rustom told me that if I would keep Prof. Pennacchi on my committee then he and Heitor would ensure that my Ph.D. gets extended and career destroyed. I mentioned that I have already asked Tim Johnson to serve on the committee. Rustom said that Tim is OK, he can be managed. A few days earlier, Heitor had also told me not to take another advisor on the committee. So, I took Rustom's threat seriously and stopped talking to Professors about my research. My committee comprised three Professors – Heitor, Rustom and Tim – and not four, as mandated by the university.
Universities rarely require more than three letters of recommendations for job candidates. I was told by all the three advisors that I am getting great recommendations. I should expect about 20 interviews at the AFA conference including at the very best colleges. So, there was no real need for me to look for the fourth advisor at that time.
At the end of October - when the application deadlines for AFA started, Rustom refused to give me recommendations for colleges like Emory University, and UW-Foster and those ranked above. He kept emailing me to tell the committee voluntarily that I would apply only to “mid-tier” schools and not to the better-ranked colleges. I was shocked and refused to opt out of the well-ranked colleges. Then, Rustom changed the list of colleges that I was planning to apply to and asked me to forward his list to the advisory committee (see the emails).
Why should an Assistant Professor tell a student that he should be teaching at Yale to get into his committee and then refuse to write a recommendation for Emory University & the University of Washington? If you don't want to recommend the student to well-ranked colleges, why should you stop him from talking to other Professors about his research? Shouldn't you tell him that you won't recommend him for well-ranked colleges well in time rather than a day before application deadlines start? At the last hour, where would the student get the recommendation from; that too when he has not talked about his research to other professors?
I talked to Tim and Heitor and they agreed that I am a strong candidate for these schools. In fact, Tim laughed when he saw Rustom's emails where he had refused to recommend me for the well-ranked colleges. When Rustom insisted, Tim emailed me that Rustom is being pessimistic and advised me to talk to Prof. George Pennacchi, the Ph.D. Program Director (see the emails). Following the advice of Prof. Pennacchi, I emailed Heitor and Tim to convince Rustom (see the emails). Later, Tim emailed me that he and Heitor emailed Rustom, but he refused to relent. So, I have only two recommendations for well-ranked colleges. The next day, Tim emailed me that he would not advise me anymore about Rustom Irani (see the emails).
The next day (November 2, 2018) I had a pre-scheduled meeting with Dean of the Business School, Jeffrey Brown, to seek his inputs before applying to the academic jobs at the AFA conference. Dean Brown is a professor of finance and had attended the department seminar when I presented my first paper. After giving me his suggestions, he asked me if I can think of something more that he can do for me. I asked him for his recommendation and he kindly agreed. He asked me if all the three advisors are giving me recommendations and then I told him that Rustom has refused to give me recommendations for the well-ranked colleges. Dean Brown looked angry to hear about Rustom's behavior and asked me to avoid him in the future. I had written a note about Rustom's behavior and appended his emails to it. Dean Brown took the note from me and told me that he is giving me his word that he would personally look into this. Some action would be taken against Rustom, although I would not get to know about it. He kindly extended the meeting from half an hour to over an hour and asked me to take care of myself and not to worry (see the email). My parents and I were very happy after the meeting and we thought that the problems had been resolved.
Just after my meeting with Dean Brown, Rustom sent me numerous emails and texts to meet in person. I met with him after Dean Brown and Heitor emailed me to do so. In the meeting, he insisted on talking about past events, although Dean Brown had advised me to avoid that discussion with him. Rustom told me that “Pranav, this is all because of Ruidi”. Ruidi is another student in our department who was on the job market. My incomplete application was to ensure that Ruidi’s application does not face my application at the end of recruiters. He also mentioned that he does not know why I received so few calls at the FMA Conference earlier. He has seen Tim’s recommendation, which speaks well of me but is unimportant since it talks only about my teaching. He told me repeatedly that he has not seen Heitor's recommendation and hence can’t comment whether it is really a strong recommendation, which is what Heitor has been suggesting. I summarized my meeting with Rustom on email to Dean Brown and Heitor (see the email).
Heitor's response to my email came to me as a big shock. For the first time, he told me that I am not a strong candidate, so all this was done to ensure that I benefit by not competing against Ruidi. In his email, Heitor asked me to meet in the afternoon. In the meeting, Heitor told me that I was acting strange. How could I approach the Dean? He threatened me that if continue to do this then I would end up harming my career. Rustom does not serve on the committee of Ruidi, so he does not gain from promoting Ruidi at my expense. It is he who serves on Ruidi's committee. Further, he told me that I should follow the email written to me by the Dean and go for counseling. After my meeting with Dean on 2nd November, Dean had emailed me where he had mentioned that I can make use of counseling services at the university if I feel too stressed. The email was not marked to Heitor but he knew its contents and used it to suggest that he and the Dean are working together. This made me very uncomfortable.
If Heitor was speaking the truth that the entire issue was about the high-ranked universities, then I should have received good recommendations for the lower ranked colleges at AFA. But that was not to be. On November 9th, Dean Brown met with me at the BIF atrium. He told me that he had asked Heitor and Tim for their recommendations so that the three of them could coordinate their recommendations for me. He told me that Heitor had written things that should be avoided, like look at Rustom’s recommendation for Pranav’s research capabilities. But, he has talked to Heitor and Heitor has assured him that he will remove these things. So, I can send any three recommendations that are available to me. I was not comfortable about Heitor's recommendation but I followed Dean Brown's advice and used Heitor's recommendation freely.
Surprisingly, I did not get a single interview from any business school in the US. On the advice of Dean Brown, I requested Heitor to make some calls to get me interviews. Heitor refused my request and emailed me that his calls would not help since the recruiters have already seen his recommendation. When I saw my recommendation letters from a university that returns application material to students, I was shocked. Heitor had written factually incorrect statements in his recommendation and recommended me to the colleges recruiting at FMA (low ranked teaching colleges) and while the application was for recruitment at AFA conference (research colleges). I called Dean Brown on his mobile on 11th December read out Heitor's recommendation. He told me that the factually incorrect statements and addressing the letter to FMA could not cut all my interviews but asking recruiters to look at Rustom's recommendation did. He told me that even after assuring him, Heitor did not change a word. Dean Brown said that I had two options - do nothing about it or show the recommendation to Heitor and ask how he could give me such a recommendation.
After about a week, I gathered courage and met with Heitor. In the one on one meeting at his office, at first, Heitor told me that I played it wrong. I should have been in a better position right now but I tried to take another recommendation. He told me that I would not get a Ph.D. this year. If I am lucky then I would get a teaching role in the economics department next year. If I excel in teaching then I can aspire to become a lecturer. But, after I showed him his recommendation, he became nervous and his behavior changed. He said that it was a mistake on his part. He should not have sent such a recommendation. This mistake should be limited to only one recommendation. He asked me when and where I got this recommendation. Then he asked me if I had read Rustom's recommendation, which I did not have access to.
Just after the meeting, Heitor called me on my mobile. I didn't have his mobile number and didn't take the call. Then he emailed me that it was his mistake to send that recommendation. He wrote that he has come up with an idea for me and wants to know my feedback. I should return to his office or call him on his mobile (see the email). Soon, he sent another email telling me that he knows about the two interviews at reputed colleges that I had not told him about and called again on my mobile.
If the main advisor does not want to give a strong recommendation to a student then shouldn't he tell this to the student early? Why should he tell the student that he has all super strong recommendations till the end and forbid him from taking another advisor in the committee? How does it happen that he threatens the student with harm to his career and then, "by mistake", destroys his recommendation?
I thought that if I talked to Heitor about what he is offering me then I would be letting down Dean Brown. So, I did not talk to Heitor that day but texted Dean Brown about the meeting and went to his office. Dean Brown had left his office for the day but returned and walked with me to the Swanlund Administration Building. I told him what had happened at the meeting and showed him the printout of Heitor's email. He did not keep the printout this time. He told me that I would get my Ph.D. this year and also a good job, only he does not know at which institution right now. I asked him how does Heitor know about the interviews that I did not tell him about. He told me hesitatingly that he had told Heitor about the interviews and went inside the building.
My First Paper on Share Pledges by Insiders and Extension of my Ph.D.:
Like the usual Ph.D. student, I wanted to graduate in five years. I came up with my research on share pledges, which was a new topic. But, I have strong reasons to believe that rather than supporting me, Rustom and Heitor tried to suppress my work in favor of a competing work by Ron Masulis and his co-authors from his University (Dou, Ying, Ronald W. Masulis, and Jason Zein. Shareholder wealth consequences of insider pledging of company stock as collateral for personal loans. 2019).
I presented my work at the Friday seminar in my department on 24th April 2015, the third year of my Ph.D. After the presentation, I discussed my work with Professors in my department. Tim Johnson gave me inputs to streamline it and asked me to write a draft and show it to him. He told me that this had very good potential to publish and hence I should take this paper seriously.
A year later, Rustom told me that Ron Masulis and his co-authors have come up with a draft paper on the topic of share pledges, which I already knew. He asked me to read their draft and follow exactly what they were doing. My work was substantially different. I had identified the two different types of share pledges and obtained strong evidence to show their contrasting effects on the firm's performance. So, I refused. Rustom asked me to meet at his office on the evening of 4th April 2016. I have worked for 8 years in responsible positions in the finance industry before joining Ph.D. But, I have never felt more humiliated in a work environment. Rustom threw on the table the document that I gave him. He shouted at me saying how I dare I not listen to him and continue to work on this. Although shaken, I politely told him that I have seen how share pledges influence the incentives of the insiders while working in the industry and intend to continue working on the topic.
After my refusal, Rustom began to insist that I talk to Jason Zein on Skype. I had not publicly disclosed my work and not asked Rustom to discuss it with others. I told him that he should not have discussed it with Jason or anyone else and kept asking him to refrain from talking to those authors. But, he would keep telling me that he talked to Jason again about my paper and kept pressurizing me to talk to him on Skype, etc. Upon my refusal, Rustom asked me to write in my paper that the other authors had written their paper before me, which to my knowledge was incorrect. He further asked me to write that they have already found what I am claiming to find and I make only a minor contribution to the topic. All this, when Rustom was not even one of my Ph.D. supervisors.
Rustom told me that I should not talk to any other person about my research. Only he would talk about my research to others. He told me that Heitor did not like the early drafts of my paper that I had emailed to him. So, now he would not allow me to graduate in five years and extend my Ph.D. This was contrary to what I could read from Heitor's emails to me. I met with Heitor and apologized for showing him the early drafts of my paper. I requested him not to think poorly of me and not to extend my Ph.D. He retorted by saying that he never said these things. He thinks that I can do good research and advised me to keep talking to professors to improve upon my work. I was surprised to hear that Rustom had been lying to me. I told Heitor that I never asked Rustom to be my advisor and would not like him to be on my committee. I also told him that Rustom treated me very rudely in his office. But, Heitor asked me to keep him in the committee and do as he says. Soon, Heitor asked me to extend my Ph.D. from five to seven years and refused to allow me to use the paper as my Job Market Paper.
In June 2017, I followed the advice to send my paper to Jason Zein to seek feedback. Jason replied with a list of questions - basic conceptual questions on the topic and those specific to their paper. I asked Heitor whether I should answer them. Following his advice on email, I emailed Jason the answers to his questions (see the emails). During the summer holidays in 2018, a professor read my paper on SSRN website and asked me to talk to my advisor and submit the paper to the Review of Financial Studies (RFS). When I asked Heitor, he told me not to submit the paper to RFS and to forget about it. The Professor who had emailed me was irritated to hear Heitor's response. So, I talked to another Professor in the department and was advised to send the Paper to RFS even if Heitor objects to it. My Ph.D. was already extended to 7 years by Heitor. I did not want to go against him and did not submit the paper to RFS. Now, it appears to me that the competing paper was being reviewed at RFS at that time. A few months later, my paper received the award for the Outstanding Doctoral Student Paper at the annual conference of the Southern Finance Association.
Response of the University:
On 18th December, when Dean Brown went to the Swanlund Administration Building, I did not know that the Building houses offices of the Chancellor, Provost, etc. Within the next few days, the computers in the finance department office were upgraded. In other words, the computers on which my recommendations were saved in the finance department were disposed of by the university within a few days of my talking about Heitor's recommendations.
After returning from the AFA conference, on 10th January, I met the Assistant Dean of Graduate Student Success to get some clarity about my situation and to know my rights and responsibilities. Chief Ethics Officer was also present in the room, although I was not informed of her designation. We talked for over an hour. I was not given any information/document regarding my rights and responsibilities, in spite of my repeatedly asking for it. The Chief Ethics Officer asked me to keep faith in Dean Brown and directed me to him. In the follow-up emails, the university neither acknowledged the meeting nor the presence of the Chief Ethics Officer (see the emails).
After the meeting with Graduate College, things went further downhill for me. My then-advisors sent me emails forcing me to tell them about my flyouts (final round of job interviews on college campuses). At CAFRAL in Mumbai, I was told that I would get the job offer in 2-3 days. Neither did I get an offer, nor did anyone reply to my email. At the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, I was threatened in a one to one interview. A Professor, who is a faculty at the National University of Singapore and not at ISB, interviewed me via Skype. He did most of the talking and it was largely unrelated to my candidature. He told me that he has known Dean Brown for over 10 years and Dean Brown has told him that I am getting aggressive. If I do not get aggressive then he would ask ISB to hire me and they will not refuse him. My first paper is very good and he would get three or four papers out of it published in the Journal of Finance (the topmost journal in Finance) by talking to his friend Prof. Amit Seru. If I do not yield then all of this would be destroyed. Why do I want to do this to myself? I was shocked because till then I was expecting that my advisors were asking me about the details of my flyouts to help me get a job and not to further sabotage my career. I was fortunate that my parents were there the next day to comfort me. But, who would comfort them? Perhaps, I was not required to inform my advisors about my flyouts, but I would not know that since the university refused to share with me any information about my rights and responsibilities.
In the meeting with Chief Ethics Officer and Assistant Dean of Graduate Student Success, I was advised to talk to more professors about my research so that I could make changes to my advisory committee; otherwise, I could find it difficult to get a Ph.D. When I tried to do that, Dean Brown said that replacing Heitor questions the integrity of the process and put a lot of pressure on me not to replace him (see the emails). Dean Brown marked the emails to Prof. George Penacchhi too, whom I had requested to be the Chair of my new committee. I am grateful to Prof. Pennacchi that he did not walk out of the committee. After all that had happened between Heitor and me, wouldn't putting pressure on me to keep him in the committee question the integrity of the process?
Dean Brown had told me that I would get a good job but, even after the tenure track job market cleared in February, I did not see anything happening on that front. Tim Johnson told me that I am a suitable candidate for the tenure track position at our department. He would support my candidature but Dean Brown has to take the decision. I met with Dean Brown on 18th February, where he told me that this is highly unlikely. He is not Superman and can not help me. I am free to complain to the university, go to courts and do whatever I like. He referred me back to the Assistant Dean of Graduate Success for filing the complaint while she had referred me to him six weeks earlier.
To get out of this merry go round, I emailed my complaint to the university officials including the Chancellor. Dean Brown replied on 21 February that Professor Mark Peecher, Associate Dean of Faculty in Gies College of Business, would formally investigate my complaint (see email 3 in this Annexure). But, Prof. Peecher emailed that this is not a formal investigation and has no set rules or procedures for the review of my complaints. This is an ad-hoc process that university is undertaking for the specific purpose of learning more about my complaints. Where was the formal investigation that I was promised and who was conducting it? Why was the university creating a false impression of conducting a formal investigation? I emailed these questions to the Chancellor but did not get an answer.
Interestingly, Prof. Peecher emailed the Chancellor and other university officials that this is a formal investigation (see email 2 in this Annexure). He did not address his email to these people while telling me that this is an ad-hoc process (see email 1 in this Annexure). Was he creating a false impression of a formal investigation in front of the university? Why so? Again, no answers from the university.
I met with the investigation committee in the afternoon on April 3. Prof. Peecher included a complaint to the investigation that I never made, perhaps to dilute the investigation. He coined up an imaginary term and claimed that I was "Unofficial Research Assistant" to protect the accused Professor. I asked him to tell me more about unofficial RAs but he did not say anything. I requested the university to let me know more about the process of claiming students as unofficial RAs but have not received any response.
Prof. Peecher directed me to Office for Access and Equity where I informed them about the "retaliation by Heitor Almeida". They asked me to contact my Department for this, upon which Prof. Louis Chan (Department Chair) directed me back to Prof. Peecher. Prof. Peecher told me in the meeting that retaliation is a separate complaint because my complaints to him and to Prof. Louis Chan have different Annexures of emails. Both complaints have exactly the same Annexures of emails, not a word is different. I forwarded both Annexures to the Chancellor and requested the university to refrain from claiming that these are separate complaints. Once again, I got no response to my request.
In contrast, the university has set-up an official and confidential investigation about something I didn't complain to the university. I have informed the investigation in-charge that his assertion that I am the complainant is factually incorrect. I requested him to let me know where can I complain against the wrongful use of my name, but did not receive any response.
I have been asking the university to look into the university email accounts of the concerned parties and offered them full access to all my email accounts. But, the university has been steadfast in its denial to look into the email accounts of the accused Professors. Why? What are they afraid of finding out?
If the university acted responsibly when I brought things to light, today I would be in a much better situation. I and my family would have been spared severe mental harassment. The university deliberately kept me uninformed and made me run from pillar to post, refusing to take official cognizance of the matter. It even passed off an ad-hoc investigation as a formal one where the in-charge coins imaginary terms to protect the accused Professors. Rather than helping me, the university looks the other way when I get threatened by my ex-advisors or their friends outside the university.
My Humble Request:
A doctoral student can't even pass his preliminary examination unless all four advisors agree. Advisors seem to have complete authority over the students but no accountability. Isn't this a recipe for abuse? I am in my late thirties and have gone through some of the ups and downs of life. I have worked in the finance industry for 7-8 years and hope to survive within academia or out of it. So, in spite of the huge personal costs, I could dare to speak up. Will a Ph.D. student in his early twenties manage to go through all this? Should she have to go through all this?
It is most unfortunate that the university administrations comprise mostly Professors and yet students are treated like this. I request you to support students who may be in a similar situation. Please consider taking a stand for the unfortunate student rather than avoiding him. if you loved talking to him for hours, now don't refuse to meet him when he seeks your advice. I would not be receiving my Ph.D. any time soon if my advisors Prof. Pennacchi and Prof. Frank Partnoy (UC Berkeley School of Law) had not supported me.
Now, the people who are wronged can make themselves heard using the internet. It is high time that the old institutions rethink their policy of abusing the victims to silence them. Steven Salaita fought against the university and, after two years, could not find an academic job even after searching across four continents. He had to leave academia. He was a professor while I am only a student. So, I am not giving myself any false hopes.
In India, we say that Guru (teacher) is next to God. Believing in this dictum has put me into a lot of trouble. I feel that it is my duty to speak up and share my experience with you. Hopefully, a professor somewhere will think twice before treating students the way I have been treated.
May 14, 2019