UF files motion to dismiss complaint of former astronomy Ph.D. student in ongoing lawsuit 


Updated, Oct. 18 at 3:31 p.m.: Correction was made to clarify that attorney Olivia Weisman represents the University of Florida not Zachary Slepian.

The University of Florida filed a dismissal on Thursday afternoon to a complaint made by former astronomy doctorate student Sankalp Gilda in an ongoing lawsuit regarding Gilda’s reported mistreatment by his former program supervisor.

The legal complaint was filed by Gilda on Sept. 6 based on “unpaid overtime wages,” according to the complaint obtained through public records. UF filed a motion to dismiss the complaint after citing failure to state a claim, according to the dismissal. 

Gilda, who worked under assistant professor Zachary Slepian for three years in the astronomy program, discussed some of his experiences in a tweet made on Sept. 15. In his post, which consisted of 24 tweets, Gilda described multiple instances of Slepian engaging in during his time as Gilda’s adviser, as well as the circumstances that led Gilda to sue UF for improper overtime compensation.

Gilda also announced through Twitter that he filed charges against the UF astronomy and astrophysics department on the basis of “racism, harassment, and retaliation.”  Gilda filed a case through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about Slepian’s behavior. The report consisted of Gilda’s experiences as a doctoral candidate from August 2015 to August 2021 and the various forms of “harassment and discrimination” that he faced during that time based on “national origin, race, and disabilities, unpaid wages, ADA violations, harassment, promissory estoppel, and intentional infliction of emotional damage.” 

Slepian did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. UF attorney, Olivia Weisman, declined to comment. 

Gilda spoke out on Twitter nearly two years after switching advisers, which occurred after Slepian stepped down from Gilda’s committee in February 2020 following multiple altercations between the two. He said he chose to wait until he finished his degree before suing to avoid facing backlash from the department and from Slepian. 

Gilda said he began working with Slepian around April 2019. At first, Gilda said Slepian was agreeable and willing to take on his research. However, Gilda said things soon started to change.

Sankalp Gilda, former UF graduate assistant. (Photo courtesy of Sankalp Gilda)

“I thought of it as a partnership,” Gilda said. “He had apparently different ideas. I needed him – he knew that.” 

Gilda said many times, his race and vulnerability as a minority student were brought into conversations with his former advisor and certain department faculty members. Gilda said he was told by Slepian to “stay in his lane” and “shut the f— up” if he wanted to protect his student visa status.

“He once told me, ‘as an Indian, I assumed you were submissive’ when I tried to stand up to him,” Gilda said.  

Gilda said “retaliatory behavior” was a normal occurrence from Slepian. In the EEOC report, Gilda described multiple incidents of misconduct. One such incident occurred in October 2019 and involved Slepian telling Gilda that he lied to the department by telling them he was flying to a work conference when instead he was visiting his girlfriend. Gilda said that after Slepian found out he reported the incident to the department heads, Slepian accused Gilda of “putting his tenure in jeopardy” and once again reminded Gilda of his visa status. 

Upon reporting Slepian’s behavior to the department chair, Gilda said he was told that he was experiencing “growing pains” and to “come back if he hits you.”

“I was just constantly gaslit in the department,” Gilda said.

Department Chair Elizabeth Lada declined to comment. 

Multiple times, Gilda said he approached Slepian and the department heads to discuss some stress-related health issues he was experiencing and his recent ADHD diagnosis. He also said 60-hour work weeks were a violation of his international student visa, which limited him to 20 hours per week. Each time, Gilda said, his grievances were ignored.

Sankalp is a former Ph.D. student at the UF astronomy department, located at the Bryant Space Science Center on Stadium Road (Grace Blair/WUFT)

Another former UF astrophysics graduate assistant, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from Slepian, said she often witnessed “manipulative and aggressive tendencies” displayed by Slepian while she served as his teaching assistant. 

“He has a history of all-around unprofessional behavior,” the anonymous former teaching assistant said. 

The teaching assistant also described an occasion on which Slepian arrived on a Zoom call without a shirt. On another occasion, she said she was called “lazy” by Slepian for telling him that she felt students would score better on exams if he wrote them rather than the teaching assistants. 

Gilda’s story is not unusual. UF professor Tao Li was placed on leave on Feb. 15 after a graduate student advised by Li committed suicide in June 2019. Gilda mentioned the incident in his tweet, linking the article and saying he hopes that by sharing his experiences with the “toxic environment” of his department, he can help prevent the issue “before another student at UF commits suicide due to abuse by their advisor.” 

Bryn Taylor, communications chair for Graduate Assistants United (GAU) at UF, said experiences such as Gilda’s are far too common. The union is meant to support students like Gilda who are facing harassment or unfair working conditions within their program, and Taylor said she hopes struggling graduate students know to reach out to GAU in the future.

“It just seems like a constant problem that’s happening in higher education,” Taylor said. “For international students, it can be especially bad. They’re in a much more vulnerable situation.”

The UF department of astronomy and astrophysics faculty members declined to comment on the matter. Steve Orlando, assistant vice president for communications at UF, and Hessy Fernandez, director of issues management and crisis communications, also declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. 

“I hope that speaking out about my experience will help prevent these problems in the future,” Gilda said. 

About Grace Blair

Grace is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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