Two weeks ago, this writer related a number of communications from Kansas University School of Medicine faculty members concerning what appears to be a serious morale problem at the school.
These highly respected KUMC staff members said there is such turmoil and lack of respect for Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean Barbara Atkinson that many are questioning whether they want to remain at the school.
In the Saturday Column, this writer noted numerous letters or memos to and from KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray Little, Atkinson, KU faculty members and KU post-doctoral students.
They told of situations in which policy guidelines were not being followed and Atkinson often ruled by fear. They said few dared to challenge or differ with the dean because there often would be some form of retaliation.
That apparently was the case with the firing of one of the school’s most distinguished faculty members, Curtis Klaassen, chairman of the department of pharmacology, toxicology and experimental therapeutics.
This action angered many faculty members; in one case, seven faculty members indicated a lack of confidence in Atkinson.
Prior to Klaassen’s firing, a group of faculty met with Gray-Little to voice their concerns about Atkinson’s actions. This prompted a letter from the chancellor to the dean telling her of the meeting, the unrest and that it appeared the dean was not adhering to the school’s policies. This was in August 2010.
When Klaassen was fired this past April, the chairman of the promotions and tenure committee, Dr. Louis H. Wetzel, wrote to Atkinson explaining how disappointed he and other committee members were with her actions reversing eight of the committee’s nine decisions to deny tenure or promotions to KU faculty members.
Because of this and the importance of the promotions and tenure committee’s task, he told the dean he was resigning from his position.
The column did not present a happy picture of the conditions at KUMC.
Shortly after the column appeared, the dean sent a memo to all medical center employees stating the column contained many errors but that, because some involved personnel matters, she could not elaborate.
Likewise a very senior KU official told this writer he should drop the matter, the school didn’t want any more discussions of the situation and that it would be very harmful to the ongoing effort to have KU designated as a National Cancer Center. He said the school and university wanted it to die down and that it would be better for everyone if this writer would stay quiet.
In fact, he suggested this writer should “count to 10 and go for a walk.”
When asked to identify errors in the column, the only ones he specified were that review policies were being followed and that the promotions and tenure committee actions were focused on promotions, not tenure.
Here is the last paragraph in Wetzel’s letter to Atkinson letting her know of his decision to resign:
“As a chief executive, you must do what you perceive best for the institution. As chair of the faculty promotions and tenure committee, I must also do what I believe is best for the school and faculty. Therefore, I must hereby formally resign from the committee as a result of the profound discordance in the committee’s considered recommendations and your final decisions. I do so with respect for the school and a sense of responsibility to the faculty, in order to emphasize the importance of these issues and help maintain the academic integrity of the institution which I have served for more than 25 years.”
KU faculty members have told this writer that in the promotions and tenure procedure, the elevation of a faculty person from assistant professor to associate professor is a signal that the individual is on the track toward tenure, which takes seven years.
Senior faculty at KUMC have told this writer that Klaassen’s firing was not the sole cause of faculty unrest and disapproval of Atkinson. Apparently a letter signed by a number of faculty had been sent to Gov. Sam Brownback telling of their concerns about Atkinson’s leadership and conditions at the school. They wonder whether Gray-Little, the governor or the Kansas Board of Regents will take any corrective action or whether they will allow the deteriorating situation to continue. So far, it doesn’t appear Atkinson has changed her manner since the August 2010 letter from the chancellor.
Relative to the question of whether opening up this unfortunate situation could damage KU’s efforts to receive NCI designation, various knowledgeable individuals said the most critical element in today’s economic environment for getting the cancer center designation is the lack of funds. Numerous highly regarded cancer research programs and nationally recognized research centers are experiencing serious financial cutbacks. This being the case, it is questionable if National Cancer Center people would want to add to their financial commitments or cut back on other highly successful programs to help fund another cancer center. Also, they point out the difficulty of a school getting the designation on its first try.
On the matter of KUMC’s leadership and the NCI designation, senior faculty members said it would send a powerful message to those who make the decisions on an application if KU leadership were to say, “We have discovered a problem in our leadership operation, we have taken prompt and strong action on the matter, and we now have stronger and better leadership to guide this school to greater levels of excellence and research.”
Acknowledge the problem; don’t try to hide it. Show the university’s leadership and determination, that it’s on top of the situation and has the courage to take corrective and positive action.
It’s an unfortunate situation, but it isn’t going to be resolved by taking a walk around the block.
Either Gray-Little, the regents or the governor should intervene. Who has the necessary leadership to make the needed changes?