Naked Capitalism: Money Determines What Colleges Teach

Columbia Tosses Out Star Faculty Researchers for Failing to Pay 80% of Their Own Way

Posted: 14 Mar 2014 03:58 AM PDT

Reader Timotheus sent this note:

Here is the fallout at Columbia resulting the Obama hatchet taken to NIH research funding. These two eminent professors with decades of serious work have been dumped unceremoniously by Columbia because they could no longer bring in the grant millions for the university business to extract rent from. This is Ivy-league neoliberalism at its worst thanks to the spineless Democrats/Obama White House allowing government science funding to get pummeled while Bush’s tax cuts are preserved.

Inside Higher Education, in Columbia criticized for not renewing long-term professors for failure to pay for salaries with grants, describes the scandal in more detail. I’m not certain how common this is at other schools, but Columbia has faculty members that are listed as full professors but are not tenured. I know of one personally at one of its graduate schools and he had a seven year appointment which could in theory have been renewed but he wasn’t particularly keen about currying favor there and landed a tenured post at another graduate school. The article is not explicit on this matter but I infer the professors in question had a deal along those lines.

But here is the ugly part: They were expected to raise 80% of their salaries in grant funding. And from Timotheus’ remarks, based on comments from insiders at Columbia, it appears that that 80% was take out of the last, not first dollars of grant money.

Consider: Let’s say you have a project that will cost $2.2 million. Your salary is $100,000. To meet the Columbia standard, I believe you’d need to grant funding of $2.280 million. In other words, you’d need to get that grant or other grant explicitly to cover your salary along with fully covering all the other project costs. Better informed readers please pipe up in comments. And I believe grants are not allowed to show a profit, as payments are made on a progress basis and expense reporting is part of the process. If my surmise is correct, if you bring in a project under budget, that might make your funding source happy, but it won’t help you with the likes of Columbia.

Key sections of the Inside Higher Education story:

Faculty and graduate students at Columbia University are protesting the university’s decision not to renew contracts of two noted, non-tenure-track professors of sociomedical sciences for missing their funding obligations. Supporters of Carole Vance and Kim Hopper also say the two medical anthropologists are part of a larger group of non-tenure-track public health faculty who are losing their appointments as Columbia enforces a funding policy that’s unrealistic and detrimental to students.

“The department of Sociomedical Sciences, the [Joseph L. Mailman] School of Public Health, and Columbia University would be diminished by dishonoring of Dr. Vance and her contributions,” reads a petition signed by dozens of professors from the U.S. and abroad, as well as graduate students who have worked with Vance. Another petition has attracted similar attention. Vance is a leading scholar of gender and female sexuality who has been at Columbia for some 30 years.

She received a letter earlier this academic year notifying her that she would not be renewed for 2014-15, for failing to bring in 80 percent of her salary in grants. Hopper, well-known for his work on homelessness, and several other longtime, non-tenure-track faculty members have received similar notices, with little to no warning, they say…

In addition to the petitions, graduate students voiced concerns about the layoffs at an assembly last month. They said the layoffs seemed particularly distasteful in light of a Columbia’s recent announcement that it had completed a $6.1 billion capital campaign, the biggest successful drive in Ivy League history. (Of course, that campaign was for the entire university, and Columbia’s biggest donors didn’t focus on public health.) Graduate students also said Mailman was overly reliant on federal grant money and asked administrators to reconsider how the school is funded.

These two professors are only the tip of the iceberg. Five nontenured faculty members have been given their exit papers already, in the form of a being offered “Zero Salary” notice. Is Columbia not subject to minimum wage laws, or is that a legal department bad joke? Others got warning letters that they’d be out next year if they didn’t shape up.

And worse, Columbia increased the termination risk by pushing these faculty members to focus on the more lucrative National Institutes of Health grants, which made it impossible for them to diversify their funding sources and made them vulnerable. From the article:

Asked about the 80 percent policy for Mailman faculty, a university spokesman said via email: “More than many disciplines, public health relies a great deal on grant funding. But there is no standard school-wide expectation, since different faculty have different areas of expertise and many contribute to the school’s mission in varying ways. Furthermore, different areas of study have different capacities to attract support, including federal, state, and local government grants, private foundation grants, and individual donors”

But comments from a third longtime, non-tenure-track professor of sociomedical sciences who is losing her appointment at the end of the year, and who did not want to be identified by name, challenged aspects of that response.

The professor said Columbia “prefers” National Institutes of Health grants, due to their high, pre-negotiated overhead rates of 63 percent. (Note: An earlier version of this sentence contained a factual error about calculating indirect costs of doing research.) And because the conditions of such grants dictate that a professor must spend 80 percent of his or her working hours on related research, there’s little time to chase down grants from a variety of sources.

Another significant challenge is fitting in quality teaching and mentorship into the remaining 20 percent of one’s time, she said. Like other professors with similar terms of employment, she teaches two courses a year and mentors students.

Nevertheless, the professor said she managed to raise about 80 percent of her salary in grants for many years. But within the last year, she dipped below that, in part because federal grants are now harder to obtain due to budget cuts. Almost immediately, she received a letter of non-reappointment. She said it came as a shock. Although her last contract includes the 80 percent policy as a goal, it was never presented to her as a requirement.

So in other words, not only did Columbia put the professors in a Catch 22 position, it didn’t even communicate honestly about what the ground rules were.

If you are a Columbia alum, I hope you’ll write and call the school and tell them you’ll never give them a dime based on their lack of commitment to educating students and keeping a highly qualified faculty. And I hope you’ll circulate this piece to others in the Columbia community and press them to follow suit.

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