KUMC faculty talking points ( .PDF )
“We are facing a potential upheaval; a lot of people are questioning whether they want to stay here.”
This is the opinion of an outstanding faculty member in the Kansas University School of Medicine. Others have expressed the same concern, but this very serious matter has remained veiled because of concern that if this situation becomes public it might derail or postpone the KU Medical Center’s chances of receiving the highly prized National Cancer Center designation.
The lid came off this explosive issue with the firing earlier this month of Dr. Curtis Klaassen, a university distinguished professor and chairman of the department of pharmacology, toxicology and therapeutics at KUMC in Kansas City, Kan.
He has been on the medical center faculty since 1968 and is one of the school’s true all-stars. A fellow faculty member described him as a “good man at heart with an exceptional reputation. He is known internationally and he has made his department out of nothing. He is highly successful and does a great job with new faculty members and his post-doctoral students.”
Klaassen was fired April 12 in a letter from Barbara Atkinson, executive vice chancellor and executive dean of the School of Medicine.
The letter stated, “This letter is to officially notify you in writing that you are no longer chair of the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics at the University of Kansas School of Medicine as of our meeting on April 6, 2011, when I told you this then. In that meeting, I gave you the opportunity to characterize this dismissal as a resignation from the chair position. However, to date, I have not received a letter of resignation, even after the reminder e-mail I sent to you on April 8 to give me your decision no later than Monday, April 11.
“You are relieved of any and all responsibilities related to the chair position. You are not to direct or lead the faculty and may no longer call department faculty meetings. You are not to interfere with the financial management of the department in any way.
“I have appointed Dr. Gerald Carlson as the interim chair, and you are to cooperate with him and report to him on all matters. Sincerely, Barbara.”
On April 10, Atkinson sent a memo to medical school faculty, and perhaps others, saying, “I want everyone to know that this action was taken only after very careful consideration and deliberation. I particularly considered what would be in the overall future best interests of the department and the programs of the medical center and the university.
“Because at its essence, this is a personnel matter, it would be inappropriate to discuss this decision further here except to say that the chairs of all KUMC departments serve at the pleasure of the Dean and/or Executive Vice Chancellor…”
Senior faculty members, graduate students and post-doctoral students told this writer that many medical school faculty members have left their administrative posts at KUMC during Atkinson’s tenure because they were “fired, forced to ‘resign,’ marginalized or left because they apparently found it impossible to interact with the dean.”
They add that she does not follow the university’s guidelines and has hired faculty, chairs and many people in the cancer center without search committees. She also does not provide annual written evaluations of faculty who report to her.
Anger over Atkinson’s actions and behavior is particularly intense among faculty and students in the basic sciences departments.
Chairmen of various medical school departments say the school’s promotions and tenure committee denied tenure for nine faculty last year, and the dean overturned eight of the nine decisions. They say most faculty won’t run for faculty governance committees or, if they do, they don’t attend meetings because it is “the dean’s way or the highway.”
Others say they are worried about the financial solvency of KUMC under Atkinson’s leadership.
“The bottom line is that KUMC appears to be autocratic. There appears to be no freedom of speech, no joint governance and no transparency,” said a group of graduate and post-doctoral students.
This unrest is not something that just popped up with Klaassen’s firing.
In September 2010, a group of seven KUMC faculty members, now known as the “Group of Seven,” told Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little about a number of their concerns. All seven faculty members were chairs of their various departments, and they originally titled their concerns a “Declaration of No Confidence by the Committee of 7.”
Later they met with the chancellor and talked about a wide range of matters. This prompted a letter from Gray-Little to Atkinson, telling her about the meeting and that many topics had been discussed. The chancellor added, “Much of our discussion focused on governance. The chairs expressed the view that faculty in general and department heads in particular, have little or no voice in the governance of the school, contrary to school policy. As a result, they feel they have no part in influencing decisions that affect them directly.”
In another part of the letter, Gray-Little stated, “… the chairs were chagrined that those discussions did not lead to a pattern of consultation for making clinical decisions.”
She added, “The recent changes regarding the organization and leadership of reproductive biology form the latest flashpoint. As you can imagine, they expressed substantial dismay about these decisions, but even more about the longer term implications of this type of decision making. For example, they feel the faculty in their departments are beginning to be alienated from the senior administration. They cite instances in which they have not been able to honor commitments to recently hired faculty members because of changes made without consultation. As a result, this has eroded trust in the administration and makes new faculty believe that the School of Medicine is not a desirable place to be in the long term, which weakens their commitment to KU. The chairs cited other particular examples to illustrate their disenfranchisement, but the underlying issue was the same.
“I know there are always multiple approaches to explaining and understanding an issue. I write you because of the depth of distress that I sensed in the chairs and their concern about not only their domains of responsibility, but also the long-term economic viability and governance of the School. Sincerely, Bernadette Gray-Little.”
This letter was written Aug. 27, 2010, and apparently had no effect because Atkinson’s governance at the medical school seems to be the same, if not worse.
Other faculty members have written to Atkinson calling attention to their concerns, but, again, there has been little if any corrective action.
It is obvious Klaassen is a deeply committed KUMC faculty member. It’s also clear he has been fighting for his department and is terribly upset and frustrated about what is happening to the basic sciences at the medical school. He worries about the fiscal sustainability of the medical school considering the recent approval by the Kansas Board of Regents for a medical school program in Salina and improvements to the medical school in Wichita. Those actions came at a time when regents acknowledge they have no money to pay for the new and expanded operations. Many at the Kansas City medical school are fearful money will be diverted from their budgets to pay for programs in Salina and Wichita.
They fault the regents for their lack of fiscal competence in starting these programs with no money.
Klaassen is passionate about his department and what is happening at the school. As one associate said, “He probably let his control slip in dealing with the dean, and now he is paying the price.”
According to a number of faculty members, Atkinson rules by fear. No one wants to counter or question her actions and policies. She does what she wants without asking for input from others at the school.
One observer said, “Dr. Klaassen was not fired because he was incompetent or did anything wrong but rather because he dared to differ with the dean. He probably was very aggressive and she fired him.”
This faculty member said, “Atkinson is destroying the very structure of the basic science department, and Dr. Klaassen has tried to do what he can to protect and strengthen the departments.”
It’s not a happy family at the KU medical school, but Atkinson’s critics are quick to point out she is “politically smart.” They claim she was able to maintain her position and power during former Chancellor Robert Hemenway’s latter years, when he was not on top of the situation as much as he should have been.
Then she realized Gray-Little would hesitate to make any major changes so soon after moving into the chancellor’s office. Also, with the medical center pulling out all the stops to try to be certified as a National Cancer Center, the chancellor would not want to make any changes in the school’s leadership that might damage that effort.
Nevertheless, it is clear there is little genuine support for Atkinson among many at the school. They do not challenge her for fear of severe recrimination. They claim many of her decisions have had, or will have, severe financial repercussions and that it will “cost a ton of money to find another chair of Klaassen’s department.”
It’s clear there are serious problems at the KU medical school and that this has been known by insiders for some time. Unfortunately, little has been done to correct the situation.
This is another case of Kansas regents either being in the dark or not having the courage to do anything about it. Does Gray-Little have the courage to do anything about it? Or are people so fearful about endangering the NCI designation that they are willing to put up with Atkinson’s disruptive leadership?
If Dr. Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center, has put together a compelling case for the Comprehensive Cancer Center, it’s likely to be approved, although not necessarily on the first attempt.
University officials obviously do not want the public to know about the ugly situation within the medical school, but it would be wrong to continue the coverup.
The integrity and reputation of the school is too important not to confront the leadership issue and make the proper corrections.
A leader who lacks respect and admiration and rules by fear, a disregard for policies, questionable fiscal management and not telling the truth should trump any concern over raising questions among those who will decide whether the school deserves recognition as a National Cancer Center.
What has been allowed to go on at the medical school is wrong and must be corrected.
Regents, as well as the chancellor, should be embarrassed for having allowed this situation to fester. Kansas deserves better. Who is going to step up and restore enthusiasm and sound direction at the School of Medicine? Or is Atkinson untouchable?