As a federal investigation into possible mismanagement of grant monies at Yale enters its eighth month, some professors are speaking out against what they say is an inappropriately invasive response from the University.
At a faculty meeting Thursday, some science professors said the University is impinging on privacy and academic freedom by copying documents from professors’ hard drives and requiring faculty members to undergo mandatory training or supervision in the grant administration process. But administrators said they have already addressed one of the faculty’s concerns about the training, and that they have simply taken steps required by government subpoenas.
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The University has been taking information off some faculty hard drives in response to subpoenas, which some professors charged was a violation of their privacy. But Yale General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said the University has had to examine documents held by individual grant-holders — some of which are kept electronically — in order to comply with the subpoenas.
Molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Joel Rosenbaum said he spoke up at yesterday’s meeting — which was closed to students — in opposition to University lawyers sifting through private correspondence and letters of recommendation, among other materials kept on faculty computers, to find the documents the subpoena calls for.
“They should tell us what information they want — unless they don’t trust us,” he said in an interview last night.
Rosenbaum, who said his computer has not been examined, and several other professors, including Yale’s only Nobel laureate, biology professor Sidney Altman, want to see copies of the government subpoena to find out exactly what documents they have requested. Rosenbaum said Altman asked Robinson at yesterday’s meeting to send out copies, but did not receive a satisfactory response.
Robinson said the process of collecting documents to submit to federal investigators is ongoing and that an investigation of this type could take months or more than a year to complete. A spokeswoman for the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency conducting the investigation, said it is department policy not to comment on ongoing investigations.
Administrators have addressed the professors’ other main concern, though not to their full satisfaction, professors said. As part of Yale’s response to the grant investigation, the University implemented 10 specific initiatives for staff and faculty, including a required training in grant administration for the scientists who apply for and receive research funding from the government. The training includes a quiz, which some professors objected to.
“The faculty training is part of a comprehensive effort across the University to upgrade our procedures, our systems for grant management and to improve faculty training in these areas,” Provost Andrew Hamilton said in November, when he announced the initiative.
The training consists of an hour-long lecture, after which researchers are required to take a short online quiz. Initially, the initiative mandated that if a faculty member involved in research sponsored by a source other than the University did not pass or take the quiz by June 30, 2007, the University would bar the researcher from applying for outside grants. More than 400 researchers have gone through the training, Hamilton said.
Altman has spoken out about the requirement, saying it infringes on academic freedom. He said the problem is not the mandatory training, but rather the penalty for not taking a quiz.
“Normally, there are no obstacles to receiving funding for research,” he said.
Altman had raised these issues with University President Richard Levin and Robinson in conversations before yesterday’s faculty meeting, Rosenbaum said. The administration responded by eliminating the penalty. Now, failing to take or pass the quiz will not restrict a professor’s applications, but any faculty member who does not meet the assessment requirement will have their future grant spending closely monitored, Hamilton said.
Rosenbaum said he resents the extra scrutiny a scientist would receive under that plan.
Science faculty expressed mixed opinions on both issues. Thomas Pollard, who is chairman of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department and who did not attend the faculty meeting, said many disagree with Altman’s claims that the quiz penalty would have infringed on academic freedom. He said only two or three professors in the department have spoken out against the penalty.
But molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Donald Engelman said he views both the mandatory training and the tactics used in the investigation as unnecessarily intrusive.
“I’m generally supportive of the idea that an excess of government scrutiny will compromise the necessary freedom of scientific endeavor,” he said.
Dieter Soll, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor, said he understands the University’s position.
“My personal view is I actually found the research administration training quite instructive because many of the rules have changed,” he said. “Yes, one could probably do things differently, but Yale was really put under the gun over the summer to do something.”
Yale received more than $430 million in grant income in the 2005 fiscal year.