Once again, for those new to this blog site, at present there are 9 posts on the blog and each has its own set of comments. To read the comments you have to hit the word "Comments" at the beginning or end of the post. Somewhat confusing is that when you bring up the comments for a specific post it eliminates the other posts from the screen. To bring the other posts back up simply go back to the top of the page and click on Blog. Finally, to understand the development of the blog it is best to read it from the bottom post (Dr. Paul Kearney Case) up.
Let me preface this post with the statement that I really struggled with the decision to put this topic on the blog site. I feared (and I am sure one of our commenters hopes) that, due to the pervasiveness of this Wethington Award and its impact on the income of many honest hard working academic researchers, discussing it might reduce support for the cause of this blog site rather than enhance it. To begin with, my intent is not to be judgmental but rather to provide a historical perspective of the mindset and attitudes of some past and present hospital, college and even university administrators toward the use of federally funded grant dollars. Furthermore, to some these discussions may have relevance to the concerns of money management issues driving the actions taken against Dr. Paul Kearney. Because the Wethington Award has been sanctioned by the legal department at the university I will not attempt to address any concerns in this area, but rather I would wish to focus on ethical concerns I, and hopefully others, might have with it. I believe that these relate directly back to the hospital/College money management concerns in that this award mechanism was defined and/or sanctioned by the administration of the College of Medicine and hospital. The bottom line being, one would hope that administrators at an institution of higher education like the University of Kentucky would value ethics, and not view them as some impediment to progress and wealth.
The simplest way for me to proceed on this Wethington Award blog post is to paste in an email I wrote President Capilouto back in 2012 shortly after he became the 12th president of our university. It is definitely a very protracted email and I am sure in some areas to some readers may also even appear a bit self-righteous. I apologize for that, but keep in mind it was written about 4 years ago in one final attempt to present these concerns to a new University President that I hoped might ask the questions, “Is there a compromise in ethics in this award and is this something that an academic institution like the University of Kentucky should be doing?” I primarily include this email because this award has been ongoing for close to 15 years and this email provides a historical synopsis (at least from my perspective as a tenured professor in the Department of Biochemistry) of how the award came about. I know that prior to my retirement the award was expanded to encompass the entire university and the mechanics of the award were changed somewhat. At least for the 2014-15 years the new award process looked like this: https://research.ca.uky.edu/sites/research.ca.uky.edu/files/app_2014-15_0.pdf. Personally, although I feel certain the university legal beagles have okayed all of this from a legal perspective, I still question the ethics. My concern is reflected in the document’s statement below entitled the “Level of the Award”:
Eligible faculty members can receive up to 50% of their salary savings, not to exceed $30,000 (without fringes), upon mutual agreement with the chair. Awards will be funded by departmental salary savings generated from grants. Awards will be disbursed once per year on June 30.
So what are my ethical concerns? To begin with, what appears counterintuitive in this statement is that there really is no departmental “salary savings” (most often grant direct cost salary reimbursement dollars) if the money does not come back as a salary savings but rather as a salary bonus/award to the investigator. Furthermore, shouldn’t this salary savings go back to the true originators of the salary and not the individual? Therefore, it looks to me like what is being done here is that grant direct cost salary reimbursement dollars (which in most cases are federal taxpayer dollars) are being laundered through university, college or department discretionary funds to provide bonuses/awards. Some reading this blog feel the state does not contribute to the salaries of the faculty of this university, but rather that these are all paid through either tuition revenue, or KMSF. Even if that be the case: a) what are the 280 million state taxpayer dollars being used for, b) is there not an ethical concern about asking for federal taxpayer supported salary reimbursement dollars for the express purpose of obtaining a bonus/award, and c) do you not think this award incentivizes an abuse of salary reimbursement requests and that these millions of dollars drained from the coffers of the NIH/NSF budget each year affect the number of grants these agencies are able to fund or renew? So yes I can clearly see where this “award” can be made legally sound, but the bigger question to me is, is it ethically sound? Or as Potter Stewart put it, “ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do”.
Finally, the irony in all of this is in the reply to my email from Dr. Capilouto’s office that I include at the bottom of this post. As you will see, he (or whomever wrote the reply for him) states he has asked for “a thorough and thoughtful review of the Wethington Awards program at the University of Kentucky”. These reviewers (presumably his legal office) I guess ultimately decided the best way to legitimize it was to expand the practice university wide.
My email to President Capilouto
From: Noonan, Daniel J
Sent: Saturday, March 03, 2012 11:28 AM
To: President, University of Kentucky
Dear Dr. Capilouto:
Academic teaching and research are two of the most rewarding endeavors I have encountered in my 64 years of existence on this earth. Unfortunately, they, like all too many good things in life, encounter challenges to their purist good that somehow need to be either endured or challenged, lest they erode the goodness from the core of the endeavor. Over the past 11 years I have taken a quasi-pacifist’s role in regard to an instituted practice here at the University of Kentucky Medical Center that I feel directly challenges the integrity of academic scientific research. I have regularly aired my concern about this problem to those around me (including our previous University Presidents), but have never aired these concerns to agencies that might directly impact them. There are several explainable reasons for this complacency, although I can’t say they are fully justified in my conscience. Perhaps the major reason is the fact that the practice is so pervasive and involves so many people I call colleagues and friends, that it is not in my nature to hurt or disrupt the lives of folks that are genuinely good people. Furthermore, it is in my estimation that the majority of these people are simply victims of manipulation with a carrot that is too large and tasty to refuse. That carrot is of course money, and therefore it is perhaps the carrot that we should focus on when looking for a target of action with regard to rectifying this challenge to academic and scientific integrity. Being a new President to this University, I hope you will indulge me and let me digress a bit so as to develop this story as it was developed within my small world as a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at the University of Kentucky.
The hubbub about striving to become a top 20-research university is really nothing new. In my 19 years here at the University of Kentucky we have continuously strived to upgrade the research component of our department through judicious hiring and incentive programs. Being limited to state budgetary constraints we have been primarily restricted to identifying young postdoctoral fellows who look to have a strong potential for success, and then nurturing these young Assistant Professor investigators through their formative years of balancing their independent research program with their newly acquired teaching and administrative responsibilities. The rewards at the end of this 6-year probationary program are promotion to Associate Professor and tenure. Here is where a state university like the University of Kentucky often encounters a specific competitive challenge. Highly talented tenured Associate Professors in the prime of their research career often are presented with options to practice elsewhere, and generally these options include incentives in salary and benefits that can’t or won’t be matched by the University of Kentucky. It can be very frustrating to see young faculty members in whom we have invested much time and resources to develop their research program to national prominence, simply pack up and leave. The bottom line is, faculty retention has been, and will continue to be, a major struggle for state universities like Kentucky.
About 10-11 years ago several of the Chairs in the basic sciences departments at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine discussed proposals for presumably developing incentives that might aid in addressing the faculty retention issues. I wish to state here that the adverb presumably in the previous sentence is wishful thinking on my part, for I was not at these meetings and as will become evident, the people who would most benefit from the ultimate incentive programs were the high salaried Chairs themselves. Several proposals were developed, and these proposals were subsequently introduced to the faculty by individual Chairs at their monthly departmental faculty meetings. Originally, if memory serves me correctly, 2 major proposals were under consideration. Both proposals were, at least in part, predicated upon the amount of research grant funding being brought into the Medical Center by the investigator. To fully understand these proposals it may (or hopefully may not) be necessary to define 3 key elements in grant funding and grant budgets. These are direct costs, indirect costs and salary reimbursement. Direct costs are those costs that are necessary for directly implementing the research studies proposed in a grant (materials and labor costs). Indirect costs are expenses peripherally associated with implementing the research proposed in a grant (administrative costs, space, utilities etc.). Many granting agencies (especially all of the federal granting agencies like NIH and NSF) allow the investigator to incorporate into their grant budget “direct costs”, an expense item that would be used to pay the % of their salary directed towards the time period devoted by the investigator to do the research proposed in the grant. This is termed “salary reimbursement” and is generally a simple percent of the individual’s salary. For soft money institutions or departments, (those that generally do not have outside salary funding resources) these monies are used to directly pay the individual’s salary. For universities with state supported salaries like Kentucky, these monies are presumably used to reimburse the state for the state-funded salary time spent by the individual in performing their research. As you probably well know, the “direct cost” salary reimbursement dollars generated by grants here at the University of Kentucky do not go back to the state treasury, but rather back to the College in which the faculty are employed. The College has a great deal of flexibility in how they can use these funds and in the past the College of Medicine, for which I am a member, has opted to give a majority of these salary reimbursement dollars back to the department from which they originate. Furthermore, in the past the department Chairs have had discretionary use of these funds, and, at least in some departments, they have been used for such critical items as paying graduate student stipends, paying office staff salaries, buying and repairing commonly used equipment and bridge funding for supporting investigators who fall upon hard times with respect to their research support. Any remaining monies were funneled back into the research programs from which they were generated and could be used by the investigators to more efficiently advance their proposed research (e.g. buy equipment, supplies and technologies not anticipated or budgeted for in the original proposal).
Well back to the problem at hand; faculty retention, incentive programs and our 2 original proposals. The first proposal presented (at least by my Chairman in our faculty meeting) was one in which faculty members would be given an annual salary “bonus” check based upon the amount of salary reimbursement dollars they generated for the department. When it was explained that the money funding this proposal would be derived from the College of Medicine’s available discretionary funds, but were totally contingent upon the salary reimbursement dollars brought into the College of Medicine (which is in part the source of these discretionary funds), some of us brought up the perceivable legal and ethical issues associated with such a system. It would appear that what was being proposed was that monies requested by individual investigators for the express purpose of doing research (direct costs in a grant proposal) would be laundered through the College of Medicine for the express purpose of fattening the personal wallets of the investigator. The fact being that salaries, and most often direct costs, are derived from tax revenues, some of us interpreted this as a misuse of state and federal funds. Finally, others recognized that there was an obvious skewing of the amount of such bonuses simply by the fact that those with larger base salaries would most likely benefit more from the system.
The second proposal was that of converting our current 12-month salaries into 9-month salaries. College of Medicine faculty are generally involved in teaching only through the 9 months spanning the Fall and Spring semesters. The proposal was to maintain the same composite salary for faculty but pay it over 9 months, and allow the faculty to use grant funding to pay for their salary during the summer months. This proposal in essence would have provided all faculty with an instant raise in salary (whatever three months of salary constituted at the time of implementation of the proposal), but would be a one time event and appeared to contain possible contentious university issues.
After gauging the cumulative faculty responses and further investigations into the legalities of the 2 proposals, the Chairs and other administrators of the College met and came up with a third plan. This plan was in essence the same as the original “bonus” plan, but in an effort to overcome some potential legal issues as well as make it sound more legitimate and ethical, it was designated as a “Wethington Award” rather than a salary bonus. This proposal was put before the department faculty at our monthly meeting and our interest in participating in such a program was established through a vote of faculty. Although a couple of us were adamant about not participating in the program, and at least one of us refused to accept an award predicated upon grant direct cost values and what was viewed as College of Medicine laundered grant funds, the vast majority of faculty were in favor of participation. To perhaps get a better feel for why we were in such a minority, I think it is useful to present the popular reasoning behind voting for participation in this award. To begin with the faculty were assured by our Chairman that this proposal was reviewed by University legal council and declared to be a legal proposal. Furthermore, the Chairman suggested (without examples) that this practice or something similar was being used at other academic institutions. Finally, there is that carrot, the money. The way the award would be (and currently is) implemented in my department was that the first 30% of salary reimbursement dollars generated by a faculty member through his/her grant funding would be used by the department to fund the many departmental needs and legitimate items mentioned above. Any salary reimbursement dollars in excess of this 30% could either be used in an individual’s research program or be funneled (laundered) into a “Wethington Award”. Therefore, if an Assistant Professor was receiving an annual salary of $60,000 and had managed to obtain funding support with salary reimbursement totaling 70% of their salary ($42,000), the first 30% ($18,000) would go back to the Department general fund and the remainder ($24,000) could be used as a “Wethington Award” (personal income). In the first few years of the award a cap of $25,000 dollars was placed on the award, but as avarice and top-heavy salaries might have it, this cap has since been raised to $50,000. Although I have not participated in this system and have been an active lobbyer against it, I can’t judge my colleagues who participate in it. Many of our faculty members are middle-aged and with children. The University salaries are at the low end of our “bench-mark” institutions and raises are practically non-existent. Let’s face it, an extra $10,000-$50,000 a year is a large sum of personal income to reject on a principle of ethics alone. I have had faculty colleagues state that they recognize that this “in principle” is wrong, but they have kids to put through school, its legal and it is a practice at other institutions. One conversation that did bother me was one in which the faculty member went to the Chairman of our department and stated he no longer wanted the award, but rather wanted the money put back into his research program. According to this faculty member his request was refused and he was told he has to take the award.
I am also able to see the potential frustration of Department Chairs who wish to reward those faculty who are able to attract research funding and national prominence. These are obviously the faculty most susceptible to disenchantment with the system and outside recruiting forces. Unfortunately, in my personal estimation this reward system is the wrong way to go about it. Beyond the expressed issue of ethics and misuse of taxpayer dollars, the program is also counter-productive in the long run. This program encourages the abuse of salary reimbursement requests and artificial inflation of grant budgets. Now, rather than budgeting for legitimate concerns faculty are budgeting for the award. The department chairs and administrators like to suggest that this system is also a motivational tool for applying for grant support, but those of us who struggle continuously for grant support know better. We are already doing everything we can to submit fundable grants, and motivation has never been an issue. Those not motivated to submit grants are probably no longer competitive in this funding jungle, and therefore no incentive program will help them. Finally, money has always been a strong temptation or driving force of illegitimacy, and I fear that for a few this tasty carrot might tempt normally conscientious and honest investigators to become overly creative with their submitted grants in an effort to strengthen their prospects of funding.
For us investigators that continuously struggle in obtaining and renewing grants, this reward system is also a type of cancer. These salary reimbursement awards inevitably eat away funds that could be legitimately used to fund or renew other grants. Without knowing the exact number, I would estimate that the College of Medicine may issue 1-2 million dollars in Wethington Awards annually. This recurring drain on funds could by itself fund the first year of anywhere from 5-10 new or renewed grants. In these times of substantially reduced NIH funding this is a significant figure. I have had grants that scored near the funding line only to lose out due to lack of funds, so I come away with the feeling that these awards are personally impacting my ability to get grants funded, and I believe these awards will also eventually come back to haunt the fundability of these individuals receiving the awards.
So we are back at the same contentious issue of how do we go about increasing the attractiveness of the University of Kentucky to our present and rising stars. They are a valuable resource to the University in both money and national credibility. Obviously salary adjustments would be one approach, but this seems to not have much support in our state’s legislative bodies. Perhaps something more enduring might be worth considering (or revisiting as the case might be). I have previously submitted proposals to past University Presidents for full subsidization of the higher education of faculty dependents. This is a benefit offered by a variety of our benchmark institutions and its implementation would probably have minimal cost and impact on our existing financial and teaching burdens. Furthermore, it can be anticipated that this program would bring in some very talented undergraduates that might alternatively opt to take their talents elsewhere. Finally, it has legitimacy. A second benefit that might be implemented is in the area of subsidized medical and insurance benefits for the families of faculty members. Being a university that has its own Medical Center as well as its own HMO program, I would think that the costs of this type of venture might likewise be manageable.
I choose to write this letter now for 3 reasons. The first is that I am unimpressed with the new Dean of our College with respect to these issues and some of the directions he is taking the College. The second is that, although I am nearing retirement, I have invested 19 years into our College and University and hate to see that investment be destroyed rather than developed. Finally, you are a new President of this University and at least from the little I have seen of you at University Senate and public presentations, you appear to be a good listener, a good thinker and a decisive person, traits I feel are critical to this University in the coming years.
Good luck in your work and thanks for reading this protracted letter.
Daniel J. Noonan
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry
University of Kentucky College of Medicine
741 South Limestone
Lexington, KY 40536-0509
President Capilouto’s email Reply
From: "President, University of Kentucky" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Fri, 20 Jul 2012 09:20:52 -0400
To: "Noonan, Daniel J" <email@example.com>
Subject: RE: Concerns
I again thank you for your correspondence below and alerting me to your concerns.
In particular, following your communication I asked for a thorough and thoughtful review of the Wethington Awards program at the University of Kentucky. That effort is ongoing.
I assure you that I continue to take your concerns seriously and I will take the results of the review seriously.