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March 31, 2009

Finally time to walk the talk, President Bruininks?

walk the talk.jpg

From your latest (30 March) spamogram:

"You are a part of a great community and are the strength of this great university. Together, we can meet the challenges of today and find creative ways to strengthen the University of Minnesota for tomorrow. I want to thank you for your hard work, commitment, and support during these difficult economic times."

You have managed to alienate faculty, Regents professors, staff, and possibly even students by some of your ill-considered recent activities. Demonstrate integrity by dealing directly with ethical problems at the U of M. Your leadership has been lacking, other than in mouthing vague generalities, e.g.:

"I think we need to put ourselves in the position of acting according to the highest ethical principles. I believe our people do that now and I believe our people will be doing that in the future as well." President Bruininks (Daily: 6-18-08)

Do the words Sainfort and Jacko ring any bells, Bob? How about Furcht, Parente (the Carlson one)? What have you, personally, got to say about them? And we don't want to hear from your mouthpiece. In the not too distant past, university presidents were supposed to be leaders and to speak out for their institution. Not put their finger up to the wind to ascertain how it was blowing, and then shove a mouthpiece out in front of Morrill Hall to deal with the press.

Oh, and if you want people in the community to continue making sacrifices, please set a good example and cut your own salary by at least ten percent.

If the community, outside of Morrill Hall, is the strength of this great university, then demonstrate that you truly believe this by acting collegially. Faculty governance is not an oxymoron.

In the words of Mark Yudof:

The need for integrity permeates every aspect of the University. The education mission of the University must be taken seriously--not just the way to get state funding.

Administrators should tell the truth, keep their word, implement what they promise, and not dissemble. My point is plain enough: Without integrity, the phrase higher education is an oxymoron.

When making decisions, I view shared governance and consultation with constituent groups as only fair because of the enormous stake they have in the University. Without fairness there is no legitimacy and no buy in to the institutional vision.

To the best of my recollection, no great scientific discoveries, no insightful social science tracts, and no novels have been produced in Morrill Hall. No classes are taught in Morrill Hall. No patients are made well in Morrill Hall.

Without authority invested where the real work of this University is done, the light of excellence will only grow dimmer. University administrators have not yet cornered the market in acumen and foresight; a monologue will not suffice.

At the crossroads of expectation and reality, human fallibility and aspiration, individual will and institutional inertia, I hope that you will forgive my inevitable lapses, take joint responsibility for the nurturing of values and goals, and find comfort in the progress we make together.

God bless all of you and God bless the University of Minnesota.


Backing and Filling on the New Regents Scholarship Policy


OurLeader's making noises about the knowledge economy and the development of human capital [I hate that phrase] is inconsistent with changes in the Regents Scholarship policy recently made by executive fiat.

Even OurLeader appears to have finally realized the blatant inconsistency, due in no small part to the furious reaction from people who have used this benefit, both on the receiving end and in recruitment.

For background, please see:

University employees react to Regents Scholarship Cut

From the latest spamogram of President Bruininks:

• No recent policy discussion has generated more feedback than the proposed shift of the Regents Scholarship Program from being fully funded by the University to permitting some level of cost sharing between the University and eligible employees. Our goal is twofold: to reduce the annual cost of the program (nearly $9 million and growing 10 percent per year) and to ensure that it remains a generous benefit for our employees. We have listened to you, and we are exploring multiple ways to restructure this important program, especially with regard to employees pursuing their first baccalaureate degree. We are also examining the impact of expanded education tax credits and tax deductions on tuition contributions for degree-seeking employees. More detailed information will be available in the next few weeks.

Ding Dong Bell


The new Bell museum project is effectively dead.

From the Daily:

Funding for a new Bell Museum of Natural History was absent from the House version of the bonding bill as state representatives introduced the $200 million spending bill Monday. Under the House bill, the University would receive $20 million in Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement (HEAPR) funding for general repair projects on campus. The Senate’s bonding bill appropriated $35 million in HEAPR funds to the University.

The House bill was presented before the Capital Investment Finance Division on Monday and will be voted on by the committee today.

“The easiest thing in the world is to write a big bill,” Hausman said before a House committee Monday. “The greater challenge is writing one that is smaller because you still have to look at it from a statewide perspective, and you still have to be fair.”

Addressing the $39.5 million Bell Museum project directly, Hausman said she called Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office Friday to get the administration’s perspective on the project. She said she was told the project is too similar to other institutions in the state.

“I was told that they believe this is duplicative of what the [Minnesota] Zoo and the Science Museum are doing,” she said.

“I know there are many very disappointed people, and I’m one of them,” Hausman said. “A $200 million bill done fairly for the entire state is not easy to arrive at.”

Bell Museum Executive Director Susan Weller also said she was disappointed, though she said after the committee meeting that she understood Hausman’s approach to the bill.

Should the funding not pass this year, Peterson said it was up to University President Bob Bruininks and the Board of Regents to decide whether or not to propose it before the Legislature next session. Weller said last week that Bruininks had told her it would not be a priority next year.

This development should come as no surprise to OurAdministration, given what appeared in the Daily on 11/30/08:

A request of about $26 million for the construction for a new Bell Museum is one of the main items the University will be requesting from the Legislature this session, Vice President of University Services Kathleen O’Brien said.

“There’s going to be some tough financial decisions to be made this session,” [State Legislator Tom] Rukavina said. “I think everything is back on the table, even the bonding proposals that have been passed.”

Rukavina said his major concerns going into the session are getting funding for repairs of Folwell Hall and working with the University so tuition doesn’t spike too high.

[State Senator Sandra] Pappas is a proponent of repairing existing facilities at universities, not necessarily building new ones, when the state’s economy is under duress.

“If they want money for the Bell Museum, I don’t know how that will fair [sic],” Pappas said. “I think it’s more likely that we would give repair or replacement dollars.”

What is really telling is the concession by President Bruininks that the Bell would not be a priority next year. Maybe it never should have been in the first place?

March 30, 2009

Graduate School Pot Boils and Troubles



"When shall we two meet again?"


 "When the hurlyburly's done…"

[Ed. note: hurlyburly is Elizabethan for Graduate School]

From the Daily:

The decision to restructure the University of Minnesota Graduate School was made seven weeks ago, but exactly how that restructuring will take place is still unknown.

The Senate Research Committee — a group that represents the interests of faculty, academic professionals, students and civil service staff in research — will bring forward a report on Thursday to the Faculty Senate asking that the administration “reconsider its efforts to close the Graduate School.”

At the very least, the research committee said until critical issues are resolved by faculty through its governance system it would be “unwise” to close the Graduate School.

“Objectivity, independence, and an emphasis on quality are required to best guide decisions related to research, program development and assessment, graduate student selection, and the awarding of graduate fellowships,” the report says.

“These criteria have been hallmarks of the Graduate School over the decades. The SRC is concerned that any loss of these characteristics will negatively impact research quality at the University, particularly in the following key areas currently organized by the Graduate School.”

A motion is also being brought forth by University Senators to “reject the proposal to dissolve the Graduate School as ill-considered.”

The motion calls the proposal “fundamentally flawed,” for reasons including that it models graduate education on undergraduate education, though the two have significantly different purposes, and that it divides M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, although in many disciplines the two are inherently linked.

The Daily reported earlier this month the University Policy on Reorganization was broken when the administration went forward with the decision to restructure the School without proper faculty consultation.

Because it is not within their responsibilities, the Board of Regents have not acted on anything regarding the Graduate School, chairwoman Patricia Simmons said.

But University Senators are bringing forward their motion since a proposal was never brought to the Senate Consultative Committee, as the reorganization policy requires.

The Faculty Senate would then ask the proper faculty channels be consulted if the administration pursues a reconstruction.

On March 11 Senior Vice President and Provost Tom Sullivan denied any wrongdoing on behalf of the administration and said discussion among faculty leadership is taking place, which he said is the reorganization policies’ intent.

Regardless of the University Senate’s motions, the end result is unknown by even the implementation committee.

At the first open implementation meeting March 11, committee chairman and Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch said it is unclear how the reconstruction will improve graduate education.

The committee, which has held two open meetings and several closed meetings, is working with an April 17 deadline, though the administration has said they will be given more time if necessary, and has yet to begin to make any decisions.

College of Liberal Arts Dean Jim Parente , however, who led last meeting’s discussion, said the team hopes to discuss resolutions in the next few weeks.

Since it is late in the school year, Parente said the committee would like to make a recommendation quickly so it can be shared with the University community.

“If we were to let it drag out I don’t think we, nor our community at large, would have the stamina to drag this out even longer,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting.

The open meeting last week held a much different tone and was smaller than the first open meeting, but the message from the meeting’s attendees was still the same — faculty pointed out that the current structure has many strengths and the implementation team said it must gather more information before anything is certain.

At both open meetings Crouch and Parente, who leads discussions when Crouch is absent, expressed that there is a good chance many programs, such as admissions, will be kept under some sort of centralized system, though the school ultimately will be dissolved.

First the sentence, then the trial?


(I congratulate OurLeader and OurProvost for the wonderful leadership they have demonstrated in bringing our community together in this time of financial stress. They have managed to alienate the faculty, the Regents Professors, the graduate students and the staff by various mistaken actions in the recent past.)

March 29, 2009

The Return of the Junkyard Dog


For a little background on this continuing saga, please see:

Wherein OurLeader Ventilates, Decries Tin Cup Approach, Offers Tax Advice, Threatens State With Junkyard Dog Behavior

The Junkyard Dog Goes Up Against TeePaw Or, We May Need to Learn How To Play With the Cards We've Got

Some short sections from the Strib piece:

President Robert Bruininks told this newspaper 16 months ago that if his University of Minnesota was again threatened with deep state appropriations cuts, he intended to be "meaner than a junkyard dog" in fighting back.

"You can't continually cut and cut and cut," he said. "That's not an aspirational vision for the future. That's a death wish."

Bruininks said he'd hoped that when Pawlenty said in December that he would spare education from cuts, he meant to include higher education. That's what governors in several other knowledge-economy wannabe states are doing.

Bruininks is asking the Legislature to soften Pawlenty's blow. But he's a realist who knows well how government works in his adopted home state. Governors usually get their way.

The president is already making cuts.

He's not so reticent now: "If we plan to keep the economy and quality of life high in Minnesota, we need to be looking at some new sources of revenue."

Bruininks doesn't sound junkyard mean when he says it. But if this respected educator says it often enough, some politicians might feel a nip.

I'm not really hearing anything new here, Bob. For some concrete suggestions, please see:

Time to put the head back on? Or, we have no money, therefore we must think

Oh, and by the way, whenever you contemplate that junkyard dog shtick, just remember what happened to Leroy Brown...

March 28, 2009

What happens when a jock-sniffing president and a great football coach share ambitious aspirations…

Florida State's T.K. Wetherell, Bobby Bowden trivialize academic fraud

From the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel:

Is it just me or are Florida State's two most visible employees -- President T.K. Wetherell and football coach Bobby Bowden -- embarassingly trying to justify or trivialize academic fraud?

Exhibit A: Bowden telling reporters about NCAA sanctions against FSU, “I think they tried to kill a flea with a hammer."

Really? Seriously?

Can you minimize a wide-spread academic scandal involving 61 athletes in 10 sports any more than comparing it to an annoying, miniscule insect?

Then there was the troubling quote from Wetherell during his press conference last week -- a quote that unfortunately got lost amid the controversy of Wetherell using a profanity to describe Samford University.

During the news conference, Wetherell took the opportunity to ask this question of reporters concerning FSU athletes cheating on exams in an on-line music course: "How many of you if given the opportunity would look at the answers?," he asked. "No, I won't even ask you to answer, you all would probably."

Translation: What's the big deal? It's just a little harmless, everyday cheating, right?.

The more I think about this, the more disappointed I become in Florida State.

If this is FSU's cavalier attitude toward academic fraud, the school should immediately drop its appeal to have NCAA sanctions lessened.

If Wetherell and Bowden keep opening their mouths, the NCAA might consider strengthening the penalties instead.

One of these people is not like the others...

Who might it be?


Hint: All but one of these very highly paid people in non-profit organizations in the Twin Cities have recently taken a salary cut of ten or more percent...

[For fun, can you identify Joe Dowling, Kaywin Feldman, Osmo Vanska, and Olga Viso? Then match them with the MIA, the Walker, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Guthrie. I assume that everyone reading this blog knows who the other one is. Let's hope he soon follows the fine example of these artistic and cultural leaders in the Twin Cities.]

March 27, 2009

Osmo takes 10% Salary Cut. President Bruininks?

From the Star-Tribune

Minnesota Orchestra to cut budget, staff, salaries

State's largest arts organization will trim annual expenses by 14 percent and reduce Osmo Vänskä's salary by 10 percent.

Staff was told Friday that the budget would be reduced by 7 percent based on a projected budget of $32 million in 2009-10. That includes an existing $1 million cut, an additional $300,000 in this budget year and $1 million in fiscal 2009-10. The orchestra is the state's largest arts organization by budget.

The cuts include:

Salary reductions of 10 percent and 7 percent respectively for Music Director Osmo Vänskä and President and CEO Michael Henson. Vanksa's compensation was listed at $786,274 in 2007 tax returns.

Ambitious Aspirations Meet Reality?

Views of a U of M grad student - from the comments on an article [State Colleges Also Face Cuts in Ambitions] that appeared recently in the New York Times:

To be clear, I've got a stake in this.

I'm a grad student in a top-ranked national program at a large mediocre public university.

Much like Arizona State my university has aspirations to be a top institution - they actually had the gall to claim that within a couple of decades they would be one of the top three public research universities in the country. These ridiculous pretensions have several insidious effects.

First, the research and publishing loads for faculty to get tenure keep on going up. I suppose the logic is that raising standards will raise productivity. What people need to realize is that so much research and publishing is required that newly hired professors would have to be insane to focus on their teaching of undergraduates. When it comes time to evaluate someone's tenure file teaching means very, very little. At best, if a prof is an awful teacher, so bad that many students have complained, and they had an otherwise acceptable research portfolio, it is possible that they might not receive tenure. However, aside from this unlikely stick, there is practically no inducement to teach well.

Faculty are actively discouraged from putting significant time into teaching by the massive publication requirements at most public universities. This leads to a 'star system' where universities try to outbid each other for scholars of renown while outsourcing most teaching to adjuncts with no job security, no benefits, and really crappy pay. More than 70% of courses at the university I work at are taught by adjuncts and graduate students.

This is not to say that adjuncts and grads are bad teachers, to the contrary, they are very often much better teachers than tenured faculty because they are actually evaluated on their effectiveness. The problem however is that they are so impoverished, over-worked, and embittered that they don't have the time to develop really good courses, they don't have the job security to plan ahead and continually improve what they teach.

Adjuncts are paid around four thousand dollars a course, no benefits, no contract past the present semester. These are folks with Ph.D.s, highly qualified teachers who have run up against the lack of tenure-track jobs. Universities need to stop spending all of their money on academic stars and start investing in the folks who do the majority of the heavy lifting.

The next ridiculous result of the scramble for prestige is that insane amounts of money get spent on flagship buildings.

The logic here is quite stupid. Making the university look cutting edge will surely trick students into attending the school. While they are making massive investments in unnecessary physical improvements university administrators are crushing staff and clerical unions, hiring adjuncts instead of tenure track faculty, and trying to pump out as many grad students in as short a time as possible. The numbers game that administrators have invented for themselves has no place for the actual mission of the university - to educate the public.

In sum, contrary to some of the comments here, it is not the faculty that are the problem, they are not lazy. The problem is in how universities are run like businesses, how they are led by business people, and how the government has allowed this to happen through perpetual underfunding.

Let's not forget that a college education isn't merely about getting a job, it is also about educating the populace so that they can thoughtfully participate in our democracy. It is about developing critical thinking skills and knowledge of the world. Informed citizenship, however, has rarely been the goal of those in charge of our country.

Well said.

We're Number One - On Utube Edu!

And no, I'm not kidding...

From the Wall Street Journal:

YouTube Edu lets viewers sort clips by school or number of views, and the schools offer content ranging from complete courses to campus events to information for prospective students. Currently, University of Minnesota commands the top spots, with videos on the science of “Watchmen” and HIV/AIDS advancements, but there’s also “Advanced Finite Elements Analysis,” a lecture from the Indian Institutes of Technology, and a mass performance of University of Kansas’s alma mater among the most-viewed.

Industry CME funding the only way to avoid med school tuition increase?

Dave Durenberger has a couple of interesting tidbits in his recent (March 26) newsletter:


Dr. Joseph Biederman, a Harvard psychiatrist and expert in diagnosing bipolar disorder in children, was director of the Johnson & Johnson Center for Pediatric Psychopathology Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from Johnson & Johnson between 2000 and 2007 of which he reported only $200,000 to his academic employer. He is also being accused of tilting research on J & J's Risperdal (risperidone) and his opinion (plus company marketing) as better than competitive neuroleptics like Eli Lilly's Zyprexa. Don't know what the naming rights on the center cost J & J, but the kind of research done in Boston and many other academic medical centers with drug company naming rights must be critical to the industry. Then why tilt outcomes. Smells like A.I.G. retention bonuses.

Dr. Charles S. Schulz is head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.
Schultz has received $112,000 in consulting fees from AstraZeneca between 2002 and 2007 and nearly $450,000 from Eli Lilly. Questions have been raised about his professional judgment in advocating superiority of AZ's Seroquel over Lilly's Haldol, a competing anti-psychotic.

Also at the UMN, medical school dean Dr. Deborah Powell defends a watered down conflict of interest policy as a "work in progress," an effort to "craft a policy that reaches some consensus." Believe this if you can, she defends killing an effort to eliminate drug company funding of continuing education as "the only alternative to raising tuition."


The release last week of the two big studies on the effectiveness of the PSA test in saving lives from prostate cancer tells us there is as yet no solid proof that everyone with highly elevated PSA will benefit from treatment.
In fact, most do not and some suffer serious side effects from treatment. The first Senate PSA's were performed on Bob Dole and Ted Stevens and they quickly passed legislation which had the effect of setting national blood testing standards for men at 40 which has resulted in billions of dollars in new income for the medical industry. And got Bob Dole a job selling erection enhancing drugs.

March 26, 2009

Joe Dowling takes 10% salary cut

Go thou and do likewise, Bob?

From Minnpost:

Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joe Dowling, whose $600,000-plus salary raised eyebrows earlier this year, will take a 10 percent salary cut as part of an effort to reduce the regional theater’s budget by 14 percent in the coming year.

[President Bruininks compensation is $700,000-plus and he is one of the highest paid public university presidents in the country.]

Four other senior managers will take 5 percent pay cuts, wages will be frozen and furloughs will be imposed, Dowling told the Star Tribune today.

An army of half-zombie rats on 7th floor of Hasselmo?

One of my colleagues on the seventh floor, Doris Taylor, is a finalist for the 2009 Time 100.

Time posts the following information about Dr. Taylor:

AGE: Unknown

OCCUPATION: Medical researcher


PRO: By injecting baby-rat cells into a cell-free rat heart, Taylor helped create the first lab-grown heart. The hope is to eventually apply her findings to human organs.

CON: In the wrong hands, her research could allow a madman to create an army of half-zombie rats.

March 25, 2009

Eroding Our Intellectual Infrastructure


PZ Myers, my colleague at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has an excellent and perceptive piece on his blog Pharyngula.  From that post:

One of the challenges facing the country right now in this time of economic crisis is that we're also about to be confronted by the result of a decade of neglect of the nation's infrastructure, in particular, the chronic starvation of our universities.

It's an insidious problem, because as administrations have discovered time and again, you can cut an education budget and nothing bad happens, from their perspective. The faculty get a pay freeze; we tighten our belts. The universities lose public funds; we raise tuition a little bit. A few faculty are lost to attrition, and the state decides to defer their replacement for a year or two or indefinitely; the remaining faculty scramble to cover the manpower loss. We can continue to do our jobs, but behind the scenes, the stresses simply grow and worsen.

I can testify to this from personal experience. My biology department struggles every year with the routine business of retirements and sabbatical leaves — we have absolutely no fat in this group, with every member playing an essential role in the curriculum, so every departure, even temporary ones, increases the strain.

We have to frantically rearrange schedules to cover our deficits, we have to drop courses for a year (so the students have to juggle their schedules as well), and we hang by our fingernails waiting for the administration to do basic things, like approve temporary hires or allow us to do a search for replacement faculty. Since the state is contributing less and less every year, we will soon reach a point where we simply won't be allowed to replace essential personnel, and then the whole system is going to break down.

The University of Florida has reached that point. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has been told to cut 10% from its budget. Since the biggest chunk of any university's budget is salaries, that means a lot of people are going on the chopping block — and the administration has decided to simply get rid of entire departments wholesale, including geology. Think about it: a college of science that simply cuts off and throws away an entire discipline. Is that really a place that is supporting science and education?

Now it's true that if all we aimed to do was churn out pre-meds, we could dispense with geology; heck, we could toss out all those ecologists, too, and hone ourselves down to nothing but a service department for instruction in physiology and anatomy.
But we wouldn't be a university anymore. We'd be a trade school.

The United States is supposed to take some pride in its educational system — at least, we're accustomed to hearing politicians stand up and brag about how our universities are the envy of the world. It's a lie. We're being steadily eroded away, and all that's holding it up right now is the desperate struggles of the faculty within it. We're at the breaking point, though, where the losses can't be supported much more, and the whole edifice is going to fall apart.

The next layer of the problem is the state government. They keep seeing the educational system as a great target for saving money with budget cuts, because the effects will not be manifest for several years — and so they steadily hack and slash and chop, and the universities suffer…and now they're at the point where they begin to break, and they keep cutting. 

It's not just Florida, either — your state is blithely gutting its system of higher education, too. Minnesota, for instance, has cut investment in higher ed by 28% between 2000 and 2007, while raising tuition 68% over the same period. We haven't been given less to do, either — our workload increases while salaries fail to keep up with inflation. This is happening everywhere. We are all Florida.

Do the Minnesota Regents have the authority to require that the U of M administration follow the rules?

Guess not..

The Executive Board of the Council of Graduate Students wrote a letter to the Board of Regents last week asking that the administration be held accountable for policies it broke during the quick decision to restructure the University of Minnesota Graduate School, but the board will not be acting on the request.

“[Senior Vice President and] Provost [Tom] Sullivan’s plans — revealed abruptly under the guise of an internal ‘restructuring’ rather than a major academic unit/centralized administration closure requiring approval — bypasses proper governance channels for major academic units and central administration units,” the letter read, which COGS President Geoff Hart said was mailed directly to the regents last week.

The Daily reported on the breach of the University Senate Policy on Reorganization , listed in the letter, earlier this month, and Provost Sullivan denied in an interview any wrongdoing on behalf of the administration.

Simmons said whether the policy was breached is not something the board will address, because it is a different governance body’s policy.

The Faculty Consultative Committee would be responsible for acting if the policy was broken.

The letter also cites the Graduate School Constitution and the Board of Regents Policy on College Constitutions , which specifies that colleges have the authority to govern their own “educational and administrative affairs.”

The Graduate School’s constitution states one of the Executive Committee’s responsibilities is to “consider proposals for and recommend policy, implementation of policy, and changes in programs or administration of the Graduate School .”

There is no indication that the Executive Committee was asked to consider the policy before the announcement last month.

Sullivan confirmed in a previous interview Graduate School Dean Gail Dubrow , who is on the committee, was not included in the drafting of the policy because of “personnel matters,” though she was given a chance to sign on prior to the announcement.

Did he make her an offer she couldn't refuse? Ah, Tom, you are such a kidder.

But seriously, folks this is a no-brainer. As a regular correspondent pointed out to me this morning, it should not be necessary to inform the Regents that they have the authority to govern the University.  


Charter of the University of Minnesota Territorial Laws 1851, Chapter III, Section 4 (confirmed by the Minnesota Constitution at Article XIII, Section 3)

"The government of the University shall be vested in a Board of twelve
Regents . . . ."

Bylaws of the Board of Regents

Article II

"The government of the University of Minnesota shall be vested in a Board
of twelve Regents . . . ."

Article VII Section B

"All matters relating to the education and administrative affairs of the
University, consistent with actions or policies of the Regents . . . are,
for the purpose of effectuating the government of the University under and
by the Regents, committed to the President, the University Senate, and the
several faculties . . . ."

See the Board of Regents Policies website.

If you repeat something often enough, maybe people will start to believe it... Graduate School Reconstruction will save money and improve graduate education?

The claim has been made by OurProvost that the Graduate School Reconstruction will save money and improve graduate education.

IT Dean Steve Crouch, the chairman of the reconstruction committee, makes some statements that contradict OurProvost's propositions.

To wit:

>"When asked how the reconstruction will improve graduate education, the chair of the implementation team, Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch, said it was unclear." "He also said it is still not clear where there will be any cost savings, which administrators have predicted."

"The University is looking to five other universities, including the University of Chicago and MIT, as models for restructuring the Graduate School. But Jennifer Gunn , acting director of the history of medicine program, said the University of Minnesota is much different from the small, private schools that administrators are comparing the University to."

"Crouch said there may be better examples that should be considered."

"Crouch, however, said he would be surprised if there isn’t a new central admissions office put in place after the reconstruction."

"Crouch said if the committee decides that certain departments should remain centralized, their recommendation would be seriously considered, but ultimately, the Graduate School will be dissolved."

Out of the mouth of the chairman of the re-organization committee comes clear evidence that the Sullivan/Bruininks putsch may be a bad idea.

The Graduate school will be absorbed by OurProvost. It is obvious from the last quote that this is a foregone conclusion. To pretend otherwise, Tom, is disingenuous.

Bill Gleason

When the Mouse is Away - Further Evidence of Need for Conflict of Interest Reform at the University of Minnesota Medical School

So I go away for Spring Break thinking that all will be peaceful…

That would be no.

There goes our pesky medical school again. This time the chairman of the psychiatry department is in hot water for tilting the table for his favorite consulting pharmaceutical company.

UD has a great post that capsulizes articles in the Pioneer-Press, the Strib, and the Daily.

Introducing Sargeant Schulz…

… another paid agent of America’s amazing pharmaceutical industry. Schulz, a very good soldier, is (as Charles Nemeroff used to be) head of psychiatry at his university. And what a university it is. The University of Minnesota medical school, under the leadership of even better soldier Deborah Powell, is making quite a name for itself in the conflict of interest field. When it comes to marching in step with your paymasters, no one does it better than the University of Minnesota.

A top University of Minnesota psychiatrist’s ties to a drug maker have come under scrutiny because he reported that the company’s blockbuster antipsychotic, Seroquel, was significantly superior to other drugs — despite evidence to the contrary.

Two months after an internal analysis by the company, AstraZeneca, found Seroquel was no better than an older, cheaper antipsychotic, Dr. S. Charles Schulz used much of the same data to publicly report that the company’s drug was “more effective.”

The disconnect between the company’s private findings in March 2000 and the psychiatrist’s optimistic report to the American Psychiatric Association in May 2000 are further evidence to critics that the drug industry can shape, revise or even conceal negative research.

It also feeds concerns that drug companies are paying noted doctors such as Schulz, the U’s chair of psychiatry, for research results that advance their marketing agendas.

Schulz has received $112,000 in consulting fees and university grants from 2002 through 2007 from AstraZeneca, according to state records, and nearly $450,000 from rival drug maker Eli Lilly.

“I hope that our findings help physicians better understand the dramatic benefits of newer medications like SEROQUEL,” Schulz said in an AstraZeneca news release
on his 2000 report, “because, if they do, we may be able to help ensure patients receive these medications first.”

Note that Minnesota professors even write like hucksters rather than scientists: DRAMATIC BENEFITS!! STEP RIGHT UP!!

Look sharp, junior professors in the University of Minnesota psychiatry department! This is the way the chair writes.

UD thanks a reader for sending her this latest dispatch.

I was out of town, or I would have:

a) sent this to Margaret
b) gotten a post up of my own.

At least someone in the Minnesota university system has the right priorities...

From the USNews Education blog, the Paper Trail:

Minnesota College Cuts Hockey

Fans in hockey-crazed Minnesota have one fewer team to follow after the University of Minnesota-Crookston canceled the school's Division II hockey program, effective immediately, the Crookston Daily Times reports. The school is already bracing for state budget cuts and has struggled to find a conference to play in ever since the Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association decided to go exclusively Division III.

Although there is no total estimate of how much the elimination of the hockey program saves, the team's travel budget alone was $85,000 last year and was expected to rise to $90,000 next season.

Does Pharma Want its Researchers to Believe They Are Next to God?

From Health Care Renewal:

In "Drug Maker Told Studies Would Aid It, Papers Say" (New York Times, Mar. 19, 2009), the Times discusses the case of psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Biederman. Dr. Biederman outlined plans to test Johnson & Johnson’s drugs including risperidone/Risperidal in presentations to company executives and seemed to guarantee positive outcomes for his studies of the drug, raising questions about his research.

Biederman has become a key witness in a series of lawsuits filed by state attorneys general claiming that makers of antipsychotic drugs defrauded state Medicaid programs by improperly marketing their medicines. His work helped fuel a rapid rise in the use of these medicines in children. Biederman earned at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007 but failed to report all but about $200,000 of this income to university officials.

However, if a passage about Dr. Biederman's testimony in court is correct, I believe pharma should consider whether it wants to use someone who believes they are next to God in any capacity whatsoever.

There are certain damning statements that, once made by a person, cast a deep shadow over a person's character. I believe this one, if true, may rise to that level:

In a contentious Feb. 26 deposition between Dr. Biederman and lawyers for the states, he was asked what rank he held at Harvard. “Full professor,” he answered.

“What’s after that?” asked a lawyer, Fletch Trammell.

“God,” Dr. Biederman responded.

“Did you say God?” Mr. Trammell asked.

“Yeah,” Dr. Biederman said.

One does not usually joke in deposition.

I've been Yale faculty, and would never, ever have made anything even approaching such a comment, least of all in a deposition about drug issues affecting kids.

Let alone the the palm-greasing he was afforded, could Dr. Biederman's apparently hyperinflated ego have clouded his judgment and scientific objectivity?

In drug R&D, that is inherently an extremely dangerous proposition.

Where children are concerned, catastrophic might be a more apt term.

-- SS

March 14, 2009

Bob Bruininks Dark Secret

from the Karemudgeon:

Well, okay, it may not actually be a secret to the President of the University of Minnesota, but it is to the boobs who pay the bills. (I mean us). The secret is: the University is becoming more and more of a closed society. No eyes allowed.

Well, that's an exaggeration. SOME eyes are allowed, the eyes that some (I would name names if I knew exactly who they were) apparently don't want anyone outside the sanctum santorum of Morrill Hall to see. For those who only help fund the state's "land grant" University, but seldom if ever visit the place, Morrill Hall is the Administration building. It's tucked into one side of Cass Gilbert's great Mall. That's where the decisions are made that affect the fate of those thousands of wide-eyed undergrads, the chipmunks who power the turbines, and the deep thinkers who actually have something to offer the great unwashed taxpayers who ultimately pay the bills.

That is: IF those deep thinkers could have the opportunity to share their thoughts with the less educated among us. By less educated, I'm including myself. You see, in addition to my all-important KareMudgeon duties, I am a reporter. I know that's a shock to many of you. Heck! It's a shock to my boss, but then, I know he seldom reads what I write. That's how I stay employed.

I would like to continue being employed. It would require that I get to the bottom of actual issues that affect the rest of the great uneducated: TV and blog viewers. Why are they "uneducated", you ask (after those viewers raid my boss's office with torches)? It's because it seems that their great University is disappearing!

Yes. It's true. I'm sure there are deep thinkers in the faculty and staff at Gopher Central who can add to the enlightenment of those boobs (us, again) who yearn for shafts of sunlight to fall and ease us into the light of day. Nice phrasing, huh? My chest is all puffed out over that last sentence. But back to Bob Bruinink's ongoing struggle with public education.

It's easier to get a lower interest rate on a credit card (just try that!) than it is to get an interview with one of the deep thinkers at the Official Knowledge Repository of the North Star State! Let me give you just one recent example: A couple of weeks ago, I called the office that is oddly named the "news service" at the "U". I was trying to set up a simple story that would be greatly enhanced by some thoughts from a maroon and gold deep thinker. Like all reporters, I was on a deadline. Now, for a reporter, that means getting a response from the people who are supposed to be able to find the appropriate deep thinker in the Swiss Bank that passes for the University.

What would have been a timely response? An hour? A day? THREE DAYS LATER, I got a voice mail from one of the folks at the "news service", informing me that they couldn't find anybody to talk about the subject in mind. There was NOBODY? Not one deep thinker, in the shadow of the new football palace, that could talk about a business story that, believe me, SHOULD have somebody? Imagine my surprise when I saw a comment in the Star Tribune that morning from (can you BELIEVE the irony?) a professor at the University of Minnesota on exactly the same subject! Coincidence? You decide. No really. You decide. I'll wait.

Okay, I've waited long enough. You don't seriously think I let those characters hold up my story do you? Nope. About 5 minutes after I placed that original call to the "news service", I placed another call. This time my fingers did the walking over to that big private school called the "University of Saint Thomas". I know it's just a Catholic school, a private institution, with no requirement to answer any of my questions, but guess what? I had an interview with a very deep thinker completely set up in TEN MINUTES!

The result? (And this is where President Bruininks should really perk up and listen) UST got the public attention. UST got the on-air credit for deep thinking. UST got the thanks of the viewing public for the sharing of actual knowledge! NOT THE U OF M! I hope the message is clear. It has been repeated over and over in recent years at the University of Minnesota. I have spoken with other reporters in and out of this information distribution center in Golden Valley and let me tell you: my hurt feelings are just about universal. The U "news service" is useless. They have become the last resort, when they should be the first call. Is it any wonder that UST is raising money from the public in vast amounts almost at will, while the PUBLIC University struggles to stay competitive and justify cash from Cass Gilbert's other edifice down University Avenue? (That's the State Capital, for the architecturally challenged).

There was a time, in the 2 ½ decades in which I have taken pen to paper and camera to tape in covering Minnesota in which the U News Service was a magnificent source of information for reporters, and through them, to the tax-paying public. One call (not an e-mail or a Twitter or a text) and the "news service" offered exactly that: service. Those days began fading some years ago. Now the atmosphere is choked with bureaucratic smog and apparently inexperienced or disinterested personnel.

President Bruininks' office is 3 floors above the semi-basement where the "news service" supposedly works. It's time to take the elevator down 3 floors and see what's going on. More precisely, he should see what is NOT going on, and how that affects the public image of Minnesota's biggest potential News source. It's time to make the deep thinkers accessible to the public and the public media, not just to spend all day trying to "spin" the U's official policy position. The best research is raw data. That's what reporters seek to find and pass on. Let's leave the spin to the viewers and the readers.

March 13, 2009

Truthiness about Tuition Benefits for Staff


This is a complex issue, obviously...

From the Strib:

A regents committee discussed the proposal for the first time Thursday. Several supported the change. "If we don't save that $2.4 million here ... it equates, for example, into about 40 jobs we have to cut somewhere else," said Regent Clyde Allen.

Please read the comments on this article. You will note that we have a big problem of perception out there. One of the problems is that most people perceive that this tuition benefit costs the U nothing and that this is just a way to generate more revenue on the backs of those who can least afford it.

If anyone from the administration would like to expain why real money is involved that might be helpful.

There are, of course, other and arguably better ways to raise more money. They have been outlined before in the December 5 (2008) Periodic Table post:

Time to put the head back on?
Or, we have no money, therefore we must think.

March 12, 2009

Premack Award to Pioneer Press for "The Death of Patient 13"

The Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Award competition is one of Minnesota's most coveted and celebrated journalism honors. Started after the death in 1975 of Frank Premack, a reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor at the Minneapolis Tribune, the competition has recognized Minnesota media doing public affairs journalism in their community or region for more than 30 years.

The entries are judged by a panel of citizens representing the Minnesota community and public life in the arts, journalism, law, and politics.

[Please find below this post an earlier one on Carl Elliot's related piece in the Pioneer Planet.]

The University of Minnesota School of Journalism announced the winners of the Premack Award.

From the press release:

Excellence in investigative or analytical reporting about public affairs (7 county metro):

The St. Paul Pioneer Press and reporters Jeremy Olson and Paul Tosto are the winners of the investigative or analytical reporting award for their series “The Death of Subject 13” published May 18, 19 and 20, 2008.

In this piece, Olson and Tosto reported for the first time on schizophrenia patient Dan Markingson’s death and the resulting lawsuit and probes. In the process, they pulled back the curtain on the rarely viewed world of industry-funded clinical research and the financial incentives that can compromise a doctor’s decision-making.

Premack judges in this category said: “Through the eyes of one patient, this story shed considerable light on the complicated and competing interests between the development and path to market of new drugs, funding needs of the University and the integrity of medical research.

The judges are hopeful that the new ethics task force implemented at the U of M is resulting in changes in conflict of interest policies.”

Hearty congratulations to Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson. Over the years they have demonstrated outstanding journalistic skills and the perseverance to dig out information in the public interest. These qualities are shared by colleagues at many other papers including the Strib and our beloved Daily.

The scrutiny of a free press is essential to exposing practices that need to be improved, especially at our beloved University of Minnesota. Truly realigning our priorities with those of a land grant institution needs to be done now. Let's work for a university that we can all be proud of.

Faculty Speak Out Against Graduate School Reconstruction

I was unable to attend as I was at a meeting deciding on summer fellowships for undergrads. Sadly we learned that the budget for this process may be savaged. Priorities, Tom, Bob?

From the Daily:

About 60 University of Minnesota faculty, students and staff came forward Wednesday to express concern over the proposed Graduate School’s decentralization, including what the benefits would be and whether it should be restructured at all.

The open meeting was the first of a handful which will be held by the team in charge of making recommendations to the Provost’s Office.

When asked how the reconstruction will improve graduate education, the chair of the implementation team, Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch, said it was unclear.

“That’s a question that the committee will have to ponder,” Crouch said. “Centralized functions do not necessarily need to be in the Provost’s Office.”

Among the most prominent concerns was how restructuring the school’s central administration would affect the admissions process for incoming graduate students.

Crouch, however, said he would be surprised if there isn’t a new central admissions office put in place after the reconstruction.

Some faculty suggested all departments should remain centralized in the Graduate School, as they are now.

Former Director of Graduate Studies and current Assistant Chair of Political Science Daniel Kelliher said he would be “horrified with the idea of doing away with the Graduate School.”

He said his department’s experience with the school has been “wonderful.”

“[The Graduate School] has its own specific mission, which is graduate studies and nothing else,” Kelliher said.

Kelliher said it would be a mistake to move Graduate School administration into the individual colleges.

“Then you get into the politics that just really undermines everything that the Graduate School does quite well,” he said.

Crouch said if the committee decides that certain departments should remain centralized, their recommendation would be seriously considered, but ultimately, the Graduate School will be dissolved.

He also said it is still not clear where there will be any cost savings, which administrators have predicted.

Faculty also said they are concerned that their programs will not run as efficiently under the new structure, and Yuichi Kubota , director of graduate studies for the physics department, said restructuring the Graduate School could negatively affect international students.

“Sometimes shaking up the institution can produce something good, but transition can be tricky,” he said. “Even if we can make up a great system at the end, I’m afraid that the loss of education of our international students can be really fatal.”

Kubota said his department relies on the excellent students they get from foreign countries, and the effects of the transition are worth thinking about.

Although the implementation team is making an effort to meet with faculty, particularly department heads, Linda Lindeke , the assistant director of graduate studies for the school of nursing, is not satisfied with their consultation.

She said in the weeks since the restructuring announcement, she has only been solicited to have coffee with a member of the committee.

“That is not going to tap the kinds of insights, the deliberations that I and my other DGS colleagues could, and I believe should be contributing right now … when decisions are free floating,” Lindeke said.

The committee has already welcomed two department heads into their closed meetings, and they plan to solicit more guests, but Lindeke suggested getting additional opinions through a questionnaire.

“The danger in the model right now is that the committee will miss a lot of wisdom,” she said.

The University is looking to five other universities, including the University of Chicago and MIT, as models for restructuring the Graduate School. But Jennifer Gunn , acting director of the history of medicine program, said the University of Minnesota is much different from the small, private schools that administrators are comparing the University to.

“We have a much greater richness both in terms of the range of professional schools, but also in terms of agricultural sciences and things that those institutions do not have,” Gunn said. “When I look at them as models, I’m curious as to why they are appropriate models for us.”

Crouch said there may be better examples that should be considered.

The implementation team will continue to hold closed meetings on Fridays, but open meetings will be held at various locations throughout the University system, including the Duluth campus.

The implementation team is due to present their initial recommendations to the Provost’s Office by mid-April, but if necessary, administrators have said they will be given more time.

A counterweight to the influence of drug money on clinical trials?


Some more disheartening information is to be found in the Pioneer Press opinion piece by Carl Elliot, a U of M bioethicist. Once again a fairly obvious ethical lapse seems to have happened at the U in this case with fatal consequences.

These are the kind of events that make it absolutely essential that the University come forth with a conflict of interest policy that is exemplary. At this point doing a half-hearted job with the excuse that it is better than nothing is unacceptable. Somehow the current leadership at the U, both in Morrill Hall and Children's Rehab, still doesn't seem to get it.

The solution to AHC/med school problems may be on the horizon. The current dean will be gone, at the end of June, and the AHC head will follow in a year. Unfortunately, leadership change during the present financial challenges is less than optimal. But in the long run the change is both necessary and, hopefully, an improvement. Those of us who've been around for a while remember the disaster that was William Brody, Frank Cerra's predecessor. It took a very long time to find the current medical school dean. So, contrary to what you might hear from our glib administrators, change is not always good.

From the Pioneer-Press:

Carl Elliott teaches at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. He's the author, most recently, of "Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream." His next book is "White Coat, Black Hat."

Five years ago this April, a handsome young man with an English degree and literary ambitions died while he was a participant in a research study at the University of Minnesota. His name was Dan Markingson. Whether Dan fully understood the research study he signed up for is disputed.

Also disputed is whether he had voluntarily agreed to take part. What is clear is that the study ended for him with what is known in the clinical trials industry as a "serious adverse event." He stabbed himself to death with a knife in the shower. He was 27 years old.

Dan grew up in St. Paul, but had moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a screenwriter. In the summer of 2003, he began showing signs of mental illness. His thoughts became paranoid and delusional. He became convinced that he was part of a satanic cult, which was calling on him to murder his mother. Uninsured, with no access to medical care in Los Angeles, he was eventually persuaded to move back to St Paul.

A psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota believed that Dan's thinking had become so impaired that he was mentally incompetent to make his own medical decisions. The psychiatrist also thought Dan was potentially so dangerous that he ought to be involuntarily committed to a state mental institution. A judge agreed.

In Minnesota, however, a mentally ill patient who has been involuntarily committed has another option, called a "stay of commitment." The patient can avoid commitment by agreeing to comply with the treatment recommendations of his or her psychiatrist. In this case, however, Dan's psychiatrist recruited him into a drug study at the university, sponsored by a multinational pharmaceutical company and overseen by a Contract Research Organization — a specialized private company that manages clinical research.

The study was designed to test and compare three antipsychotic drugs on subjects who were experiencing their first psychotic episode. It was while Dan was in this study that he committed suicide.

New legislation being considered in Minnesota would aim to prevent the circumstances that surrounded Dan's death from happening again. Rep. Karla Bigham and Sen. Don Betzold have introduced a bill that would bar medical researchers from recruiting mentally ill patients who are under a court commitment order. The bill should be uncontroversial.

In fact, many studies of antipsychotic drugs already exclude anyone who is at risk of suicide or violence to others. (The study during which Dan Markingson died was supposed to exclude subjects "at serious suicidal risk" but did not mention violence.) Mentally ill patients who are dangerous to themselves or others do not belong in a drug study. They need to be given the best possible treatment, under extremely careful supervision, where they can be protected from their own actions.

Virtually any drug study will carry risks. Patients may be given drugs that do not work or that make them worse, or that have dangerous side effects. Sometimes patients are given a placebo. Even in studies where every drug under study has been approved by the FDA, patients may well get care that is inferior to what they would have gotten outside the study.

A study may place strict limits on the kinds of treatments the subjects are allowed to receive, for example. Because of the potential dangers of research, a cornerstone of research ethics is the voluntary and informed consent of the research subject. Yet how voluntary is a subject's consent when the other option is involuntary commitment?

The larger problem at issue here is the changing landscape of medical research. Over the past 25 years, clinical medical research has been transformed from an academic endeavor conducted largely in universities into a profit-driven, multinational industry. Most clinical research today is funded by the pharmaceutical industry, managed by Contract Research Organizations, approved by for-profit ethics boards, and supervised by physicians in private clinical trial sites. The financial stakes are enormous. Revenue from Contract Research Organizations alone exceeded $17 billion in 2007.

If universities want to compete for industry-funded studies today, they must compete on terms set by the world of private business. This means recruiting patients into studies as quickly as possible, in order to get drugs to market quickly while the patent clock ticks toward expiration. When the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services investigated research practices in 2000, its report warned of the incentives given to university researchers to recruit patients into studies, such as departmental funding, equipment, authorship on journal articles and salaries for research staff. In addition, many university researchers have lucrative financial relationships with the companies sponsoring their research, such as paid consultancies and speaking arrangements.

Many universities propose to manage the conflicts of interest created by these financial relationships simply by disclosing them. But there is no evidence to suggest that disclosure alone will eliminate the pressure to recruit subjects. Disclosure merely gives the illusion that conflicts have been resolved while allowing researchers and universities to continue collecting industry money.

Any serious attempt to clean up industry-sponsored research must do at least two things. First, it must minimize the internal pressure faced by researchers to raise money for their departments. Second, it must eliminate the external financial incentives that lead researchers to recruit patients into studies instead of giving them proven treatment. Unless these conflicts of interests are eliminated, universities will continue to repeat the mistakes that preceded the death of Dan Markingson.

March 11, 2009

Driven to Discover - Maybe we don't pay Regents Professors enough?


UD posts on a recent little ick, where else but in the U of M med school...

It’s funny how sometimes…

… when you learn one little extra thing about a person, and then go back and read something about them, it reads completely differently.

For instance, Robert Hebbel is a professor who uses his wife’s disability parking permit illegally. He was just fined for doing it at the school where he works, the University of Minnesota.

So here’s an article written about him not long ago. UD has enjoyed snickering through it with this new information.

Start with the headline.


[Dr. Hebbell is] a fellow who’s very busy and very driven.

… Hebbel was attracted to the problem solving approach of internal medicine. “”I love the chase! I love using your wits to design an experiment to solve the problem,” he says. “I love the “aha!” moment, finding out how something works in biology.” [The chase! Problem solving! Using your wits! You can experience the very same thrills figuring out how to take parking spaces away from disabled people.] … I do things that are risky,” he says.

… “I’ve always just done what seems to be interesting to me in the moment.”

The Cost of Central Administration

From the Daily:

The administration breaks rules, gets paid ever more, to ensure students have no real say in the organization of their education.

And while we’re on the point, here’s a great reason for transparency the administration probably wouldn’t want you to know: The Implementation Team and Provost Tom Sullivan, who could approve their recommendations, are making big money for breaking the rules. From the budget years 2004-05 to 2008-09, institutional support at the University of Minnesota increased to $322 million from $178 million — more than any other expenditure. Julie Tonneson, the budget director at the University Office of Budget and Finance, said that institutional support “is basically central administration.” The rampant proliferation of central administration has put at least an additional $143 million burden on the laps of students and taxpayers.

Meanwhile, as central administration fattens, student aid and research have suffered a five-year net decrease — the only expenditures to do so.

March 10, 2009

The Closed U - Chris Ison Speaks Out

Chris Ison is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He was the Daily editor-in-chief in 1982-83, and later was an investigative reporter and editor at the Star Tribune. He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1990.

From the Daily:

We are hearing much about saving the University of Minnesota’s core mission these days, and we should.
A $4.5 billion state deficit seriously threatens that mission, and it should be front and center as University administrators fight to make their case at the state Legislature.

But while they’re at it, they might want to reread the mission themselves.
It’s a quick read, after all — about five paragraphs covering three core values: research and discovery, teaching and learning, outreach and public service.

It’s that outreach and public service mission — described with words such as “effective public engagement” and “sharing knowledge” — that could use some extra attention. Because what the University runs on, of course, is public money. And evidence is mounting that the University isn’t much interested in an open, public dialogue that must be part of the deal.

We’ve seen a few examples lately:

Key stakeholders of the University’s graduate programs were blindsided recently by the announcement that the Graduate School would be restructured.

Graduate studies directors and student leaders told the Daily they didn’t learn of the decision until much of the public did.

Members of a task force on ethics reform in the Medical School complained recently of being kept in the dark about key issues, including the fact that a co-chair of the task force himself had been reprimanded for a “serious” conflict of interest violation. That came to light only after the Star Tribune reported it. Later, some task force members had to learn from the Daily that a draft report based on many months of their own work had been weakened.

The administration has flogged the Daily over its reporting, of course, even while faculty and others have found that reporting essential. That only furthers the University’s reputation as an institution that, while espousing education and knowledge, is intent on choking the flow of information to the public — even while it asks the public for hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

What much of the public doesn’t know is the extent of the University’s effort to undermine public awareness. Last month, a message to University directors and others warned that the Daily was trying to report on the potential effects of proposed budget cuts. The audacity! University News Service Director Daniel Wolter urged those contacted by Daily reporters to call him before agreeing to talk. He expressed concern about problems “that will result from using this particular venue for that purpose,” and said he’d be “happy” to offer a no comment on their behalf.

A similar e-mail was distributed just more than a year ago, complaining of “numerous uncoordinated administration comments giving too much information” to the media. The message directed all who receive press inquiries to route them to the News Service to ensure “the University’s reputation is both protected and advanced through the news media.” In other words: Don’t talk so that we can spin.

Such messages aren’t meant to be seen by newspaper staffers, of course, but they do see them. Why? Because people at the University who believe in truth, freedom of expression and open public discourse send them.

As a journalism instructor, I’ve spent years helping Daily reporters navigate through requests for information and public records. The resistance can be formidable. Delays, rejections and obfuscation are commonplace.

It’s not just Daily reporters who have complained. Many will remember the controversial search for a University president in 2002. The Daily, the Star Tribune and other newspapers had to sue to get the names of the finalists for the position. After a District Court judge ruled that the University had violated the law, the University appealed to the state Court of Appeals. When it lost again, it appealed to the state Supreme Court, only to lose again.

The University stands out among other agencies in foot-dragging, according to Dan Browning, an editor at the Star Tribune who has taught journalism and worked with students on public record requests.

“The U of M is notoriously bad in responding to requests for information,” he said. “That's their reputation.”

To be sure, Daily reporters aren’t perfect, and at times file difficult requests. But they are as dedicated and courteous as my old colleagues at the Star Tribune. They share the same passion — to help us all understand issues important to this community. That’s why faculty, legislators, the professional media and others read the Daily routinely. It covers, better than anyone, what is arguably the state’s most precious public asset.

In an interview for this column, Wolter said that he works hard to get the Daily the information it wants as quickly as possible, despite large numbers of requests. (Disclosure: I have an in-law who works at the News Service. We don’t discuss these issues.) Wolter said he treats Daily journalists as professionals while helping educate them about access to information.

Sounds reasonable. But Wolter could use at least as much educating.

Professional journalists usually aren’t forced to communicate with public information offices only through e-mail, as Wolter generally demands of Daily reporters

It’s a system that inhibits good-faith communication and reasonably quick access. Most professional journalists aren’t pressured to go through one office to cover, on a daily basis, a community of more than 60,000 people — only to be chastised for being a burden on that office.

Wolter’s e-mail policy does give him plenty of chances to scold reporters for doing their jobs. Take the recent e-mail sent to a reporter after she politely explained her role as a journalist and said she hoped to forge “a more professional and collaborative” relationship with his office.

Wolter responded in part by criticizing her calls to other University offices, saying “there’s nothing in their job description about talking to the media.” He complained of how “most people who have been at the ‘U’ for more than a couple of years also have a story of how the Daily wasted their time in some way.”

It’s a petty claim that would be fodder for jokes in most newsrooms. But for Daily reporters, it’s another reminder of who wields the power.

Since this edition of the Daily is written by newspaper alumni, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t always this way.

Trish Van Pilsum, now an investigative reporter with Fox 9 News, remembers few problems when she covered the University administration for the Daily during the early 1980s.

“I would walk in and out of the president’s office,” she recalls. “I had easy access to anybody in the administration that I wanted to talk to. I had ready access to any information I wanted.”

Pam Louwagie, the editor-in-chief in 1994-95, said her reporters had little trouble with the News Service.

“We could call whoever we wanted,” said Louwagie, now a projects reporter at the Star Tribune.

Sarah McKenzie, the Daily’s managing editor in 2000-01, remembers few obstacles.

“It seemed like we could call any department head,” said McKenzie, now the editor of the Southwest Journal and Downtown Journal in Minneapolis. “If there was something controversial, I don’t remember them trying to manage that.”

The University survived then.

Circling the wagons won’t help it thrive today. Many of the state’s best minds gather here. Shutting down the information they and the public need to help find solutions is bad business. And it violates the spirit of the University’s mission.

If the leaders believe in that mission, it’s time to walk the talk.


OurCEO: "We could have done better." On transparency? Or governance? Or consultation? Or...


OurCEO just doesn't seem to get it.

From the Daily:

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four-part series examining the decision to restructure the University of Minnesota’s Graduate School. Wednesday’s installment will address why the decision to restructure the Grad School was made and the role of the Implementation Team.

In light of recent criticisms for lack of transparency in the decision to restructure the University of Minnesota’s Graduate School, administrators are now responding to the claims and expressing “regret,” while standing by their decision.

Recently, Senior Vice Provost Tom Sullivan and University President Bob Bruininks have expressed regret in e-mails sent to University faculty and staff, acquired by the Daily, in addition to meetings and speeches regarding how the reconstruction was communicated to the public.

After the State of the University Address Thursday, Bruininks responded to a question over accountability and transparency by directly addressing the criticism from the Graduate School reconstruction.

“I have indicated to people that I think we could have done better,”
Bruininks said. “We could have engaged people more in conversation. When a lot of people tell you that you haven’t done a good job at rolling something out or discussing something I think we have to listen to them.”

Bruininks also addressed the issue in a budget update e-mail to faculty and staff on March 1, saying that he believed the decision “was a sound one.”

Three days later, Sullivan sent an e-mail to Graduate School faculty, staff and students that expressed regret over the decision, which was sped up in response to the state Legislature’s $151 million proposed cut to the University.

“If this sense of urgency appeared to compromise my commitment to consultation as we begin to chart a new course for the oversight and support of graduate education, I regret that misunderstanding,” Sullivan wrote in the e-mail.

At a Feb. 26 Faculty Consultative Committee meeting, Sullivan also said “hindsight is very informative” and he has “learned much from the process,” according to the committee’s minutes, which outline the meeting’s proceedings.

University spokesman Daniel Wolter said the administration would like to use the issue as a “learning experience” on how they will approach similar issues in the future.

Law School Professor Carol Chomsky, a member of the Faculty Consultative Committee, and Mary Vavrus, the director of graduate studies in the communications department, said the recent remarks and e-mails from Sullivan and Bruininks are reassuring.

“It doesn’t change what happened, but at least it shows a certain amount of willingness to be flexible and willingness to be more open than I think [Sullivan] has been thus far and I think that’s great,” Vavrus said.
Some graduate students, however, say more than a letter and a few speeches are needed to mend the damage that was caused by the lack of transparency.

In response to Sullivan’s e-mail, Council of Graduate Students President Geoff Hart said “there was no misunderstanding.”

“It is quite clear the president and the provost want consultation, but only consultation on how the new plan will be implemented, with no consultation if the new plan has merit in the first place,” Hart said.
Hart questioned why the administration widely consults prior to nonacademic decisions, such as the decision to build the TCF Bank Stadium, while a decision that affects the University’s academic reputation had no consultation.

Graduate education will actually make the University the No. 3 research institution in the world, but the president and provost gave no such consultation on their new plan, Hart said.

“Their priorities are in the wrong places,” he said.

He suggested that the only real way to mend the damage is to put the decision of whether to dissolve the Graduate School at all back on the table, a request that was also made by 23 past and present University Regents professors last month. The request was turned down by the administration.

March 9, 2009

Terminators Called to Account or We don't Need No Stinkin' (Independent) Graduate School?


The Decider?

From the Daily:

U admins breach policy in decision to restructure Grad School

A University of Minnesota document shows that administrators broke University policy in their hasty decision to restructure the Graduate School.

While the widely criticized decision to restructure the Graduate School remains firm, the guidelines for how it will be done are wavering and the administration is expressing “regret” over how the restructuring was communicated to the public.

Although University President Bob Bruininks said in a March 1 e-mail to faculty and staff that he stands by the decision, a document indicates University policy was broken during the early stages of the process.

The University’s Policy on Reorganization, approved by the University Senate and administration in 1999, states that if a University president “contemplates … a major reorganization of the central administration, he or she shall present a proposal to the Senate Consultative Committee (or separately to the Faculty Consultative Committee and Student Senate Consultative Committee) for information and discussion.”

University spokesman Daniel Wolter declined comment because he said he does not have enough information at this time, but he acknowledged that the Graduate School is considered a part of the “central administration.”

Wolter originally was not aware of that aspect of the policy, but when specifically asked about it, he said the possibility of a policy breach was a “good point.”

However, he also said the document could be construed in different ways.

The SCC is made up in part of members from the FCC and SSCC and serves as the consulting body to the president and as the executive committee of the University Senate.

While the SCC doesn’t need to approve policy decisions, according to the document, they are supposed to be informed, and there is no indication that the reconstruction was brought up to the committee prior to the decision being announced.

The SCC represents University faculty, academic professionals, civil service staff and students at large and not the individual campuses, institutes, colleges, schools or departments of the University.

Council of Graduate Students President Geoff Hart said he is angry that the administration broke a policy that says in “black and white” that the president has to consult prior to making major decisions.

“This policy was enacted to help the president make informed decisions based on evidence and discussion of a broad audience, not just a few select biased few in the administration,” Hart said.

March 8, 2009

Quotations from OurCEO - State of the University '09


I am sorry, Bob, but given what has been going on around here, how can you make such a statement?

To hear you say this is painful for many of us, and in light of the facts it should have been painful for you to say as well.


The Incredible Shrinking Conflict of Interest Policy


From the Strib:

Med school pares rules on conflicts of interest

Last year, the people crafting new conflict-of-interest rules for the University of Minnesota Medical School touted them as some of the toughest in the nation.

The 13-page draft banned gifts to faculty, researchers and students from drug and medical device companies. It barred the companies from funding continuing education. It established strict guidelines for reporting industry relationships, including disclosure to patients and the public.

But six months later, a slimmed-down, two-page version bearing a few notable changes is winding its way through the university's considerable bureaucracy toward approval by the Board of Regents.

In its wake, the draft has left embattled supporters and passionate critics, and the controversial process has revealed how difficult it is for a modern university to disentangle industry from academia.

"I wish a lot of the controversy had not happened,
because I think this process was really important for the school, its faculty and the students,'' Medical School Dean Dr. Deborah Powell said in an interview. "But I think we've arrived at a good place."

After the original draft was distributed, the Star Tribune reported that the co-chair of the drafting committee, Dr. Leo Furcht, had been disciplined by the U for his business dealings some years earlier, a fact not disclosed to other task force members.

Questions also lingered about Powell serving on the board of PepsiAmericas Inc., a Minneapolis bottling company, and whether it skews her perception of industry relationships. (She says it doesn't.) Last month, Powell's position as dean was eliminated in a department shakeup. The university called it a cost-saving move unrelated to ethics issues.

Industry influence

The policy was intended to manage the often-pervasive influence that drug and device companies have at the school without cutting off a vital source of research funding.

Powell said she received hundreds of e-mails and calls regarding the proposal. Working with department heads, she said, she tried to craft a policy that reached some consensus among the parties.

The consensus has proved elusive.

In recent weeks, the debate has raged in the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, and has bled into the blogosphere.

"The original document was excellent; I couldn't complain about it," said William Gleason, an associate professor in the U's Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology. But the new version? Gleason claims it has been watered down, much to its detriment.

A major change from the original document involves industry funding for continuing medical education, courses that keep doctors' and other professionals' licenses current. Critics say industry money influences doctors to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs and medical devices, sometimes in ways not approved by federal regulators.

The original draft called for an end to industry support of those courses within five years. The new version permits industry funding, but under the rules of a national accrediting organization. Powell called the guidelines "quite strict."

"We have no alternative source of funding for it,'' Powell said. "As the economy worsens, a lot of the people who take our courses can't afford to pay the tuition. Our courses are attended by nurses, pharmacists, physicians, and people felt we couldn't raise the tuition."

But Dr. Marcia Angell of the Harvard Medical School said: "Of all the financial deals between industry and physicians, [continuing medical education] is the worst. The medical profession should take full responsibility for educating its members, not abdicate it to companies with clear conflicts of interest.''

The revised policy also eliminates a provision calling for subjects in clinical trials to be enrolled by patient advocates, as opposed to the doctors involved in the study, who may be paid by drug and device companies.

"That was a huge issue,'' Powell said. "A lot of faculty argued in a very impassioned fashion that they're the person who knows their patients best.'' She noted that patient advocates will still be available for study subjects.

Reporting funding

Another tweak: Faculty and staff at the Medical School must report external funding exceeding $500 from any single source. Previous drafts advocated dropping the reporting ceiling to zero. The current policy requires disclosure of funding of more than $10,000.

This grates at critics such as Gleason. "Why not make it zero?" he said. "Why don't they do it right -- right from the start?"

Yet several key recommendations remain intact, including a public website documenting all industry payments to Medical School faculty.

"There was no controversy about that," Powell said.

For Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor of journalism who served on the committee, the drafting process should have engaged the public from the very beginning.

"I urged the task force and the dean that editorial boards of local news organizations should be shown the draft recommendations and then asked for comment,'' he said. "Perhaps if that had happened, this slow, toxic dribble of news about the process would have been avoided.''

But Powell said the policy is a work in progress. "As more and more information comes out, the school will probably modify this in years to come. I think it's a good start."

Why, oh why, oh why, Dean Powell, do you persist in making statements like this? We can modify it in the future? Puhleeze! Just to give one example: why set the minimum at $500? You know how easily this could be manipulated. Why not make it zero and be done with it? This is just one example of the spectacular stupidity that has been demonstrated in the whole conflict of interest business over the last year and a half.

And, simply put, the continuing medical education situation is a scandal.
We can raise $50 million for an (unnecessary) children's hospital - that will be the property of Fairview. We can pay another Associate Dean $266K, but somehow we can't figure out how to finance continuing medical education without disgracing ourselves?

"'If a doctor in the community can’t go to a prestigious public university like Minnesota for continuing education programs that are free from industry sponsorship, then where can she go?' he [Gabriel Silverman, American Medical Student Association Scorecard director] asked."

Further Backpedaling on Graduate School Reorganization

And, as Martha would say, "It's a good thing."


From the Daily:

The Graduate School Implementation Team began gathering information on how departments could be affected by the school’s restructuring at their meeting Friday.

Director of Graduate Admissions Dean Tsantir, and Director of Student Services Karen Starry, addressed their departments’ current functions at the committee’s second meeting.

College of Liberal Arts Dean Jim Parente oversaw the meeting, since the committee's chair, Institute of Technology Dean Steven Crouch, is out of town.

The Committee's chair, IT Dean Crouch, probably has a lot of other very important things on his plate right now, but maybe that was the idea?

“This it the very beginning of what we imagine to be a series of conversations with people in the Graduate School itself,” Parente said.

Actually talk with the people in the Grad School? Didn't OurProvost already do this?

The committee will be holding an open meeting on Wednesday, Parente said.

You mean Dan Wolter won't get to serve as a filter? However will we keep a lid on this process? Think of the children! Should they know what goes on in a meeting such as this?

The previous meetings have been closed to the media and public. Parente said he expects the time and place of the meeting to be announced by e-mail to Graduate School faculty, staff and students Monday.

Walking the talk is good, Dean Parente. You're new around here to the dean business, aren't you? That's not going to be popular with your colleagues in the administration.

Check mndaily.com for updates and developments. Pick up a copy of Monday's Daily for a comprehensive look at the decision to restructure the Graduate School and policies that may have been breached in the process.

There are a lot of people interested in those policies that have been breached. It's called process and governance. OurProvost is a serial ex-law school dean who should know better.

March 7, 2009

Another Example of the Use of Loaded Words By Our Administration - "Investment"


The word transparency has taken a terrible beating lately, and investment is also rapidly degenerating into adminspeak.

From the Strib:

"State support is on the wrong trajectory," Bruininks said. " Now is not the time to reduce the university's quality and capacity. Now is the time to invest in the university's quest for excellence." A strategic decision to upgrade the University of Minnesota now, combined with a renewed resolve within the university for both excellence and public accountability, would position the state well when the economy rebounds, he said.

Pawlenty makes the same argument about strategic investment when making the case for a cut in corporate taxes. In fact, Pawlenty's corporate tax cut is nearly equivalent to the budget cut his budget would deal the university. The Legislature would do well to weigh Pawlenty's idea against the proven contribution the University of Minnesota has made to this state's prosperity through the decades, and ask: Which would be the smarter strategic move this year?

Apparently, when the money is being spent for what Governor Pawlenty and President Bruininks want, then it is an investment.

Presdident Bruininks is fond of using the word investment - at least when he is in St. Paul. I suggest that he invest in the University himself, by taking a cut in his obscene (under the circumstances) compensation of $740 K per year. Time to put your money where your mouth is, Bob?

Instead of cutting Regents Scholarships, another creative source of about 2.5 million dollars, would be to cut the salaries of all U of M employees who make more than $250K by ten percent. If President Bruininks took a twenty percent cut that alone would bring in about 150K$. And he would still be pulling down more than half a million dollars a year. However could you live on this pittance, Bob?

March 6, 2009

Disappointing Peformance by OurCEO


Yesterday, OurCEO gave his much advertised State of the University address. Spamograms were duly sent soliciting questions in advance. Much hoopla. In his usual kill the clock fashion, OurCEO answered exactly three questions. Sad..

The Daily has a couple of articles on the event.

First is on the brouhaha about cutting Regents Scholarships. Asking the little people to sacrifice would have been easier to take if OurCEO had taken a hit himself, say 10% of his obscene (in these circumstances) compensation of more than 700K$ per year. The second article is on OurCEO's actual address.

From the Daily:

Bruininks talks finances in State of U Address

The president called attention to economic challenges impacting the University.

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks addressed a crowd of roughly 300 about the future of the school in his State of the University Address Thursday afternoon, a talk dominated by finances.

He said this is the first year that private support outpaces public support.

The University is hoping to have the Discover U scholarship — a tuition reduction program for median- and low-income students — in place by 2010 or 2011, University spokesman Daniel Wolter said.

“We’ve basically said we’re going to fund what we would ask for from the Legislature,” Wolter said, “which was $8 million just for the middle-income piece, with reallocations and private funding. We are acknowledging that we are probably not going to get more money from the state.”

The Founders Free Tuition Program would be absorbed into the Discover U Program. However, until the Discover U Program is in place, the Founders program will remain the same, Wolter said.

Affordability was one of four strategies Bruininks proposed “to solidify the University’s quality and mission for coming generations.” He also talked about goals for an agreed-upon vision for resource use with the state of Minnesota, a stronger financial model, and a strengthened core and capacity for the University.

In a question and answer session at the end, concern was raised about administrative spending.

Bruininks responded saying that in 2003 the administration took the deepest hit and will not be exempt now.

Thin gruel, indeed.

I left a comment on the Daily's website concerning the article.

Unanswered Questions

OurCEO sent out an email soliciting questions to be answered after his 2009 State of the University address.

To which I replied:

Dear Bob,

You asked for questions. I have many but will send just two:

1. Why don't you take a salary cut of 10-20% as many other CEOs have done? Your compensation is in excess of 700K. Under the current circumstances a voluntary pay cut is in order.

2. Why didn't you follow written University policy on the Graduate School re-organization?
Policy requires that such a decision be made in consultation with the community. It is not sufficient to make the decision and at that point to involve faculty and others in implementation. The same can be said with respect to your actions in re-organizing the Medical School and the AHC.

If you want everyone to pull together in this crisis - and it is a crisis - then honesty, integrity, and, yes, consultation, will be required.

I look forward to your answers. I wish I could be at your talk in person but I have concurrent teaching obligations.

Best wishes,

Bill Gleason


These questions and many other obvious ones were not answered. OurCEO took questions for fifteen minutes and in his usual kill the clock style, answered three.

Bob, I'd like to request that you answer my questions as well as others that were submitted. Please post these answers on the U of M website. Thank you for considering this request.

March 5, 2009

A Conversation With OurProvost: A Non-Apology on Your Unbirthday?


A friend's reaction to our backpedaling Provost:

"I regret that misunderstanding." (Not "I regret the action taken.")

"We all also are committed to ensuring this restructuring . . . will be accomplished."

An "apology" by OurProvost for the failure of others to understand him is not an apology.

The value of an apology without remedial action is ZERO.

If the Administration was serious about meaningful consultation, then it would rescind the decision on "restructuring" the Grad School and submit its proposal in accordance with the official Policy on Reorganization.

(Notice that there is nary a word about the Policy in the message of OurProvost.)

The only "consultation" offered in the message is limited to the implementation of the decision already made by the Administration.

If the University Senate does not force the issue now by taking formal action, the Administration will continue to make unilateral decisions and then utter platitudes about consultation.

Minneapolis Institute of Art Cuts Staff - Leader Cuts Own Pay by Ten Percent

From the Strib;

Faced with a dramatic drop in revenues, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts took steps Wednesday to trim $1.7 million from its operating budget by eliminating 6 percent of its staff and reducing executive salaries immediately, and cutting its exhibitions and programs by as much as 20 percent next year.

“It was probably the worst day of my professional career,” said museum director Kaywin Feldman, who took a voluntary 10 percent cut in pay. “The MIA staff is very much a family and we feel the loss of staff here as something very dear.”

Bob? Can you handle this or at $740K is this too much of a sacrifice for you?

March 4, 2009

Faculty Suggest UDub President Take a Salary Cut...

I hope OurCEO is paying attention to what is going on with respect to his peers around the country...

More than $700K compensation per year - a freeze is a sacrifice?

from KIRO Radio

Faced with massive cuts, faculty at the University of Washington had some suggestions for University President Mark Emmert at a meeting Tuesday night.

"We could take half of your salary and save ten jobs. There's no reason that that should not be done," faculty member Steve Lee.

Emmert says his $800,000 salary, and just about everything else, is on the table.

The university faces cuts of 15 to 20 percent. The school may lay off hundreds of faculty and staff, as well as greatly reduce the number of students.

Bob, go thou and do likewise?

OurProvost Backpedals

Sort of...


March 4, 2009

TO:Graduate Faculty, Graduate School Staff, and Graduate Students
FROM: E. Thomas Sullivan, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
SUBJECT: Restructuring Graduate Education

As a follow up to my earlier announcement about restructuring the oversight and support of graduate education at the University of Minnesota, I want to respond to the questions and concerns that I have heard.

We currently face a sense of urgency as we plan for substantial impending budget cuts. If this sense of urgency appeared to compromise my commitment to consultation as we begin to chart a new course for the oversight and support of graduate education, I regret that misunderstanding. Graduate education is a valued attribute of this University, and we all share ownership in its ultimate impact and success. We all know that the reputation of a research university is inextricably linked to the reputation of its graduate programs.

The February 9 plan,
"Restructuring the Oversight and Support of Graduate Education to Enhance Excellence," which was endorsed by the president, was intended to establish a commitment to restructuring graduate education and to provide the outlines of what that restructuring might look like. The dual purposes of the restructuring effort are to conserve fiscal resources and enhance excellence, to be accomplished by streamlining administration, reducing overhead, eliminating redundancies, and aligning responsibilities and accountability for graduate programs. The plan was designed to be a starting point for a broader conversation across the University community. Decisions regarding the contours of this general plan have yet to be made, and will be made only after broad and deliberate consultation.

To this end, I appointed a team of graduate faculty and students, directors of graduate studies, members of the Graduate School Executive Team, chaired faculty, members of faculty governance, department chairs, and collegiate deans, to drive this conversation and to gather diverse perspectives and experiences as we develop a shared vision for restructuring graduate education at the University. I have emphasized that the committee has broad and flexible discretion to make recommendations regarding how to accomplish the restructuring within the context of its general charge to submit recommendations on all relevant issues, whether or not specifically identified in either the February 9 plan or the February 20 charge memo. And as we did with the 35 strategic positioning task forces, there will be a public comment period and widespread discussion of the committee's recommendations before any final directions are determined.

I also want to emphasize that if we need more time beyond the fall 2010 projected implementation date set forth in the February 9 memo, we are prepared to take the time--we are more committed to moving forward with a promising strategy than meeting a deadline.

We all are committed to sustaining the accomplishments that have been made in graduate education to date, and to further enhancing the quality and excellence of graduate education in the face of these challenging economic times. We all also are committed to ensuring that this restructuring, and other crucial efforts to move the University forward in these times of fiscal challenge, will be accomplished through an open and inclusive process that ensures thoughtful and informed recommendations.

cc: Executive Team
Twin Cities Deans
Department Heads and Chairs
Directors of Graduate Studies and Assistants
Faculty Consultative Committee
Senate Committee on Educational Policy
Regents Professors

The issue of violating written University policy on re-organization is not addressed. Strange for a lawyer...

I went to see the opera version of Pinocchio last night, Tom. Unfortunately, your last sentence reminds me of the lad. If you want people to start believing in open and inclusive processes then it is time to demonstrate this by your actions. I note that you did not use the word transparency in your email. Just as well, because you have damaged it beyond repair.

March 3, 2009

Harvard Med in Ethics Quandary - Sound Familiar?


Harvard Medical School students like Kirsten Austad, left; Lekshmi Santhosh, Kim Sue and David Tian, members of the American Medical Student Association, object to the influence of drug companies in the school’s educational curriculum.

From the NYT:

BOSTON — In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.

Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.

“I felt really violated,” Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, recently recalled. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.”

The students argue, for example, that Harvard should be embarrassed by the F grade it recently received from the American Medical Student Association, a national group that rates how well medical schools monitor and control drug industry money.

Harvard Medical School’s peers received much higher grades, ranging from the A for the University of Pennsylvania, to B’s received by Stanford, Columbia and New York University, to the C for Yale.

[Minnesota's grade is D.]

Further, the potential embarrassments — a Senate investigation of several medical professors, the F grade, a new state law effective July 1 requiring Massachusetts doctors to disclose corporate gifts over $50 — are only now adding to pressure for change.

The dean, Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, who says he wants Harvard to catch up with the best practices at other leading medical schools, recently announced a 19-member committee to re-examine his school’s conflict-of-interest policies. The group, which includes three students, is to meet in private on Thursday.

[Sound familiar..]

“Harvard needs to live up to its name,” said Kirsten Austad, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student who is one of the movement’s leaders. “We are really being indoctrinated into a field of medicine that is becoming more and more commercialized.”

David Tian, 24, a first-year Harvard Medical student, said: “Before coming here, I had no idea how much influence companies had on medical education. And it’s something that’s purposely meant to be under the table, providing information under the guise of education when that information is also presented for marketing purposes.”

[Minnesota needs to live up to its name, also.]

PZ Goes Big Time

My esteemed colleague, PZ Meyers, a faculty member at U of M, Morris, will be writing a monthly science column for the Guardian. A coup of another type for the U of M?

[PZ has been in a little trouble lately over some of the things that have appeared on his blog. He is still employed - for which I am grateful. My blog has been described as kid stuff in comparison to Pharyngula, PZ's bully pulpit.]

from Pharyngula:

Posted on: March 3, 2009 7:03 AM, by PZ Myers

They even titled the announcement "And now for something completely different…".

I'm going to be doing a new monthly science column for the Guardian, so once again, I have blithely stacked another deadline on top of the groaning pile already on my desk. This should be fun, though, and one must constantly be building beachheads on other continents if one hopes to take over the world.

Besides, I've also been promoted to "leading American evolutionary biologist", which will surprise leading American evolutionary biologist everywhere, but which will look wonderfully pretentious on my CV.

Hmm... Leading American evolutionary biologist? Apparently PZ is internationally famous. Maybe it is time to appoint him a Regents Professor? I'll bet OurCEO would support this, after all he has "ambitious aspirations."

Maybe not...

It has to come from the students

UD comments on Josh Lackner's piece in the Daily about med school conflict of interest:

"See the post just below this one, where the militancy that matters derives from Harvard medical school students.

Similarly, a med student at the University of Minnesota shows you, in this all-business, supremely clear opinion piece, how to eviscerate deans who can’t imagine adjusting to life without industry money.

While the militancy has to come from the students, we shouldn’t forget those other sources of moral clarity and pressure: High-profile professors unencumbered by greed, like Harvard’s Marcia Angell; and bulldogs in Congress like Charles Grassley."

March 2, 2009

OurCEO Asks for Questions


"So what's on your mind..."

OurCEO sent out an email this morning soliciting questions to be answered after his 2009 State of the University address.

To which I replied:

Dear Bob,

You asked for questions. I have many but will send just two:

1. Why don't you take a salary cut of 10-20% as many other CEOs have done? Your compensation is in excess of 700K. Under the current circumstances a voluntary pay cut is in order.

2. Why didn't you follow written University policy on the Graduate School re-organization? Policy requires that such a decision be made in consultation with the community. It is not sufficient to make the decision and at that point to involve faculty and others in implementation. The same can be said with respect to your actions in re-organizing the Medical School and the AHC.

If you want everyone to pull together in this crisis - and it is a crisis - then honesty, integrity, and, yes, consultation, will be required.

I look forward to your answers. I wish I could be at your talk in person but I have concurrent teaching obligations.

Best wishes,

Bill Gleason

William B. Gleason, University of Minnesota
Associate Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology
Fellow, University of Minnesota Supercomputer Institute
Graduate Faculty: Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering

I haven't had much luck getting answers to questions like these in the past. It will be interesting to see what happens this time.

Another Member of the Medical School Conflict of Interest Panel Speaks Up

A true conflicts-of-interest policy?

Dean Powell’s proposed COI reform for the Medical School is significantly diluted.

From the Daily:

BY Josh Lackner
PUBLISHED: 03/01/2009

Josh Lackner is a student at the Medical School and a member of the erstwhile COI committee. ]

A conflict of interest is the distraction from one's primary goal (patient care) by a secondary interest or influence (like gifts from a pharmaceutical representative). The University of Minnesota’s Medical School needs to maintain working relationships with the pharmaceutical and device industries, but it also needs to remain focused on the humanitarian principles of medicine.

Dean Deborah Powell’s office recently released its second-draft conflict-of-interest policy recommendations for the Medical School. This document is based on recommendations made by her COI committee — of which I was a member — but Powell’s draft is substantially diluted. Whereas the American Medical Students Association applauded the COI committee’s recommendations, the association — which grades COI policies across the nation —regards the new recommendations as “borderline.” Though Powell’s draft still contains some good and needed policy, it ignores key committee recommendations that would have put us on par with the best medical school conflict-of-interest policies.

Continuing medical education

Powell’s draft, unlike her committee recommendations, permits industry-funded CME. We know that pharmaceutical companies have successfully manipulated CME to promote off-label drug prescribing and delimit the focus of CME to topics that result in increased prescribing of their drug product. The University's Department of Family Medicine and Community Health has already removed industry funding from CME. Our commitment to scientific objectivity in patient care behooves us to independently fund CME.

Big pharma, small gifts

Small gifts are marketing items of nominal value, such as mugs and pens given by pharmaceutical salespeople. Though cheap, they serve as durable advertisements for a drug product or company. They are inexplicably allowed in Powell's second draft. We know from experimental social psychology that nominal gifts affect behavior and we have numerous accounts of former pharmaceutical representatives on the effectiveness of small gifts. The Saint Mary's Duluth Clinic system and others in Minnesota have already banned small gifts. The best-rated medical school COI policies do as well.

Similarly, Powell’s draft permits pharmaceutical industry on campus, without stipulation, as long as there is departmental approval. From a seminal review article in 2000 out of McGill University, we know that industry representatives include misinformation in their pitches and we know that such misinformation is retained. Drug marketing does not belong on campus.

Marketing talks

Powell’s draft allows a professor to deliver drug talks as long as he or she is also hired as a consultant. We know these presentations skew prescribing. From an internal Merck document obtained by the Wall Street Journal in 2005, we know that, in the case of the drug Vioxx, “doctors who attended a lecture by another doctor wrote an additional $623.55 worth of prescriptions for the painkiller Vioxx over a 12-month period compared with doctors who didn't attend.” Marketing talks are commercials in the guise of education. Professors in the medical school should not deliver them.

Research and the public interest

Though the COI committee did not address the availability of research products, the University’s mission statement makes explicit our commitment to the public good. The HIV drug Abacavir was developed at the University during the 1990s and licensed to GlaxoSmithKline. Though a public relations battle ensued in which many implored the University to make the drug available to the poorest countries, this never happened. Today, many schools have policies that allow limited generic licensure, permitting availability of the drug to the poor while protecting the profits of the academic institution and of the industry partner. Our stated priorities would make such a policy highly appropriate.

Research bias

Industry funding impinges on several characteristics of research. A sweeping review performed by researchers at Yale in 2003 found that industry-funded research is more likely to use inactive controls or sub-optimal dosing of a competitor drug in head to head trials. The review found that researchers funded by industry were more than twice as likely to take commercial considerations into account when selecting research topics. We must somehow mediate these effects.


From a 1994 Journal of the American Medical Association article examining physician formulary requests (the formulary is the list of drugs carried by the hospital), we learn that physicians who made specific requests had nearly 20 times the odds of having a financial relationship with the maker of the drug than other physicians. Powell’s draft requires that these financial relationships be subject to an “approved written agreement defining such aspects as specific deliverables, goals, services and fair market compensation.” This is the standard, according to the American Medical Students Association, but we also need to limit and monitor these positions, as they very likely affect behavior.

If we, as an academic community, are sincere in our mission statement, and are to adhere to the principles of a publicly funded institution, we need to take this opportunity to create a sound conflict-of-interest policy. Why should we settle for mediocre when we could have a top-notch COI policy that insures the integrity of medical education, patient care and research? One that truly prioritizes public health?

All Aboard, the Transparency Train is Leaving the Station

The Transparency Train will be departing Morill Hall on schedule thanks to OurCEO and OurProvost.


From the Daily:

Grad School restructuring team meets for first time

Plans for future meetings were made, and the team was asked to keep discussions confidential.

BY Katherine Wolfe

The team that will determine how to restructure the University of Minnesota Graduate School convened for the first time Friday, discussing how the team will proceed in the next six weeks.

How to restructure, not whether, how? This is not governance by consultation and directly contradicts written university policy on re-organization.

The 18-member implementation team, which is made up of faculty and two graduate students, also set up times for future meetings, University spokesman Dan Wolter said in an e-mailed statement.

Faculty and two graduate students? Not exactly, it is stacked with administrators and others who are directly answerable to the provost.

The meeting was not open to the public, and the media was not allowed in.

Openness, transparency? Ya, fer sure...

One team member, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the team was asked to keep the discussions confidential, but did not disclose who asked for confidentiality.

Ah, that would obviously be OurProvost, folks.

E-mails obtained by the Daily show that although team members are allowed to speak with media, they have been advised to speak with Wolter prior to making comments.

So faculty are allowed to speak, but they are only supposed to do this after they speak to Dan Wolter? Who the hell is Dan Wolter? And what right does he have to censure the comments of faculty and others to the press?

During the two-and-a-half-hour session, Senior Vice Provost Tom Sullivan also answered questions about what the "charge" of the committee is, Wolter said.

Sounds like the Strategic Propaganda Initiative. I will decide what is to be done, give you a charge, and you will do it. Sounds like consultation to me, alright.

There is indication the reconstruction’s original plan could change. The team will be discussing different models.

The team will meet on Fridays and will likely have sub-committees to deal with more specialized areas, Wolter said.

The team has until April 17 to make its final recommendations to the Provost’s Office, which will be followed by an opportunity for public comment, according to University documents.

Input which can of course be ignored, and OurCEO and OurProvost go merrily on with their plans?

The Openness and Transparency Express, leaving soon from Morrill Hall, a helluva way to run a railroad!