A court filing last month provided a glimpse into a long-simmering feud between Kansas University Medical Center and one of its top-performing faculty members.
In late May, Curtis Klaassen, a distinguished professor of pharmacology and toxicology, faced a faculty committee that weighed the evidence against him and will recommend whether the university should sanction him. The allegations involve several instances of unprofessional and disruptive behavior at faculty meetings and other discussions with colleagues. They also allege Klaassen failed to report an outside business venture on forms that must be filed with the Kansas secretary of state.
The ongoing dispute has taken place behind closed doors thus far, as KUMC officials have refused to comment, saying it’s a personnel matter. Klaassen and his supporters haven’t made on-the-record comments, either.
But Klaassen and his attorneys asked a federal court to stop the faculty hearing scheduled for May 29, arguing — in part — that the university had violated its own rules by accepting written testimony from witnesses without allowing Klaassen to cross-examine them. The court declined to act, saying it lacked jurisdiction in the case. So the hearing took place as scheduled.
But with the court filing, Klaassen made public a trove of previously confidential documents that provide a glimpse into how the university and the professor got to this point.
What is not in dispute is that Klaassen is an excellent researcher. In a letter defending him to KUMC leaders, his attorneys pointed out he has published about 500 peer-reviewed articles, averaging one per month during his 43 years on the KUMC faculty.
Barbara Atkinson, who at the time was actively serving as executive vice chancellor of KU Medical Center and the executive dean of the School of Medicine, praised his contributions to the university, even in an announcement she made to the KUMC community saying he was being removed as chairman of his department in April 2011.
“I recognize Dr. Klaassen’s very significant contributions to KUMC and to science over the years, as well as the success he has had in building the faculty and research programs of the department,” she wrote.
Despite his achievements, the university in a written report detailed allegations against Klaassen going back to 2009.
The allegations of disruptive and bullying behavior include several specific instances, drawing from interviews with faculty and PowerPoint slides from faculty meetings. According to KUMC’s report included in Klaassen’s court filing:
l Klaassen instituted an English-only rule in the department, saying that speaking a language other than English in the department was “very divisive,” and when someone hears his or her name in a conversation in another language, “one often assumes the worst, that is, the conversation is something negative about you.”
l Klaassen became upset after being informed of space changes in the department, and informed the faculty in a presentation that used PowerPoint slides that included images of soldiers armed with guns pointing outward from a circle indicating that those in the department must protect each other. Another slide showed one soldier with his gun pointed inward toward the circle.
l Klaassen on several occasions made personal verbal attacks against faculty members and staff and behaved erratically, both in meetings and in other conversations. At a presentation to the university from an outside vendor demonstrating a faculty activity reporting system, Klaassen interrupted the presentation and wondered why the university was spending money given its budget constraints and referred to KUMC as a “slumlord institution,” according to KUMC’s report.
l Klaassen failed to report, on his conflict of interest forms with the state, income from a private review course for board certification in toxicology that he taught.
Klaassen’s attorneys, in a written response to KUMC’s report, said that after reviewing the written report, they “are genuinely disturbed at its one-sided recitation of seemingly meaningless misunderstandings blown entirely out of proportion.”
They said KUMC investigators failed to interview his many supporters, including students and other faculty members, who paint a different picture than the one described in KUMC’s report. They allege that KUMC began investigating Klaassen and taking disciplinary action against him only after the professor went to Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little with seven other basic science chairs and distinguished professors to address concerns with Atkinson’s leadership and management.
“Given Dr. Klaassen’s esteemed reputation and world-renowned leadership in his field, one has to wonder why he is now the subject of a personnel investigation by KUMC, the very place to which he has dedicated his entire career,” wrote Robert W. Cotter, an attorney from a Kansas City, Mo., law firm representing Klaassen. “We believe the investigation is a direct response to Dr. Klaassen’s critical inquiry into Dean Barbara Atkinson’s decision-making with regard to the KUMC basic science departments.”
Atkinson has announced she will step down from her position effective June 30, and is no longer playing an active role in the leadership of KUMC after reaching an agreement with the university that would essentially pay her a year’s salary after she left her leadership posts.
Klaassen’s attorneys said Klaassen had never been informed of the complaints against him or given a chance to respond until after KUMC’s inquiry committee interviewed him for his response to the allegations, and hadn’t seen anything in writing until the committee issued its report.
During the investigation, KUMC placed Klaassen on administrative leave for 45 days, allowing him to return Dec. 16, 2011, according to court filings. Klaassen’s attorneys alleged that when he returned to work, he was forced to move offices twice to an older building, and was transferred to the department of medicine.
The committee in charge of sorting out the claims has concluded its investigation and hearing, which was closed to the public. It has made a recommendation to Steven Stites, acting KUMC executive vice chancellor. He and Gray-Little have several options once they see the recommendation of the committee: they could do nothing at all, censure Klaassen publicly, suspend him with or without pay, or terminate his employment.
Klaassen’s attorneys, in their written response to the university, said they intend to “vigorously defend Dr. Klaassen from these unfounded attacks.”