Sunday, October 31, 2010

Charley Walters (Pioneer-Press)

Wefald for University of Minnesota


CW: "they should ask this charming fellow [Wefald] what it would take to get him to succeed Bruininks, who is retiring in June."

"The saint of KSU is a panting jocksniffer who has handed much of KSU’s money to a dirtily run football program. He has also engaged in nepotism and conflict of interest. Wefald is your basic long-running banana republic leader. Power went to his head. The Topeka Capital-Journal provides details of his conflict of interest."  Margaret Soltan

Someone needs to do a little homework...

Added later:

A reader points out that for credibility some of the relevant material should be provided.

Here it is:

Three high profile stockholders [including Wefald] in a company started by the economic development arm of Kansas State University exposed themselves to charges of ethical misconduct by using their influence to jump to the front of the payday line when the business was sold to Coca-Cola, state officials said Wednesday.
The Topeka Capital-Journal (June 25, 2009) at

Then Kansas State University released its review of the audit:
Former Kansas State University president Jon Wefald invested too much power in vice president Bob Krause and provided inadequate oversight of his actions, said a university review of financial irregularities first identified in a June audit.
Release of that review to the Kansas Board of Regents by current K-State president Kirk Schulz on Thursday appeared to be the final step in the wide and complex saga involving secret compensation deals in K-State's athletic department and conflicts of interest in management of a business incubator program affiliated with the university.
The Topeka Capital-Journal  (November 19, 2009) at

See an earlier post about the effect of so-called revenue producing sports on higher education:  Will they Never Learn.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

(Who will guard the guardians?)

Conflict of Interest at the
 University of Minnesota
 on Troubled Waters

Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, Friday, October 22, 2010

"Mr. Rotenberg said he is the lawyer; his clients, the President and the Provost, have already answered the question."

"She  [Professor Elliot]  also noted that the President, at the FCC meeting the preceding day, had said that the default for decision-making must be to forward the issue to the Provost if there is a question about academic freedom. Her question now, to which she invites Mr. Rotenberg to respond in the future, is what, in existing policies and procedures, did not happen? What flaw is there in policies and procedures that caused the problem? The Committee would like to work with him on answering that question. Mr. Rotenberg said that he would review the questions from FCC and that he and the Provost would do whatever they can to deal with them and will follow the Committee's guidance on what it needs."
As one of my friends put it:

If the clients of the general counsel are the president and the provost, then a conflict of interest prevents the general counsel from conducting an independent investigation and from advising any other groups, such as the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee or the Faculty Consultative Committee.

Rule 1.7 (a) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (formerly known as the Canons of Ethics).
 "Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. 
A concurrent conflict of interest exists if: 
(1) the representation of one client [president and provost] will be directly adverse to another client [the University]; or
(2) there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients [the University] will be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client [president and provost], a former client or a third person, or by a personal interest of the lawyer [a general counsel who may serve at the pleasure of the president]."
Rule 1.8 (b) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct
 "A lawyer shall not use information relating to representation of a client [president and provost] to the disadvantage of the client unless the client gives informed consent, except as permitted or required by these rules."
Rule 1.13(f) of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct
 "A  lawyer representing an organization [the University] may also represent any of its directors, officers, employees, members, shareholders, or other constituents, subject to the provisions of Rule 1.7.  If the organization's consent to the dual representation is required by Rule 1.7, the consent shall be given by an appropriate official of the organization other than the individual who is to be represented [president and provost], or by the shareholders."
Are the administrators and the members of the faculty blind to this conflict of interest and the ethical obligations of the general counsel?

An outside, independent, investigation of this matter is called for.  A suggested mechanism has been given in Community Voices on the Star-Tribune website:

Psst... Wanna Raise Tuition Revenue at 

The University of Minnesota by

44 Million Dollars? 

Here's how...

I've got a new post up on the Star-Tribune web site Community Voices:

University of Minnesota Has Lowest Out of State Tuition for BigTen Publics

After posting, I began to wonder how much revenue we could actually raise in these troubled financial times just by charging the AVERAGE BigTen out of state tuition?  

If Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue can charge significantly more for out of state tuition, why can't we? [Especially since we are on the verge of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world - by 2014, I believe.]

So check my math here.  The result seems surprising, but it looks real.

Fall 2010 Undergrad out of state enrollment (not reciprocity states) is 4,166. Source: 

If we charged the BigTen average for out of state ($26,015) instead of the current $15,293 we would increase our revenue by 44.7 million dollars... 

10,722 x 4,166 = $44,667,852

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Will They Never Learn?

Another Reaction to Regent Johnson's

Remarks on the Sports Page of

St. Paul Pioneer-Press

[Added Later: Link to letter from MWM to Margaret Sughrue Carlson, former director of U of M alumni association.]

My friend Michael McNabb is a double alum of the U of M both for his undergraduate and law degrees.  Four of his children have attended the U. He shares my own wish that the university return to its original priorities, the first and foremost of which should be an excellent education at an affordable cost for the citizens of the state. I post with permission from an email he has just sent. 

Headline in the St. Paul Pioneer Press today (Wednesday, October 27):

U Regent Wants Football Focus

The report contains the following quotations from Regent Dean Johnson, the former majority leader of the Minnesota State Senate:

"The University of Minnesota has three things to do:  teach, provide research and outreach.  The first two are extremely important.  The third, the outreach--I can think of no better outreach than to have a winning football team, a Big Ten championship and a competitive national football team. . .

"If the Golden Gophers were to go back to the Rose Bowl or be nationally competitive, that helps us to get through the workday; that takes care of a lot of things.  The positives:  the alumni become more excited, donors begin to feel good about their giving, not only to athletics, but to the law school, to the school of medicine, to whatever.  And it all generates an enthusiasm.  . .

"During the interview of our presidential search, I will ask, 'What has been your commitment to athletics and to football and how  have you budgeted?'  Not 'What are your plans, but what has your track record been?'

"Now, we'll ask questions of academics and research and on and on, too.  They are equally important.  But I think the people of this state want us to, and I think we owe it to them, to be more competitive in collegiate football."

Where to begin with this nonsense?  For starters:

(1) Entertainment (football) is not outreach (or public service) for an institution of higher education.

(2) It is a myth that winning athletic teams generate widespread alumni support for academic programs.  [See the attached letter to the former director of the Minnesota Alumni Association.]

(3) The objective of an institution of higher education is not to help people "get through the workday" by making them feel good about winning games.  An institution higher education does prepare people to make intelligent decisions about their life and their work.

(4) The Regents owe it to the people of Minnesota to devote their time and effort to finding solutions to serious problems that threaten higher education today.

Michael W. McNabb
University of Minnesota Alum
"During the interview of our presidential search, I will ask, 'What has been your commitment to athletics and to football and how much have you budgeted?' Not 'What are your plans, but what has your track record been?'"

University of Minnesota Regent

Johnson lauds ex-Kansas State president, Wefald

How out of touch can you be?

And if they have no track record, Mr. Johnson? Does this mean that they are not presidential material? If their football coach had a poor record, like President Bruininks, does this mean they are not a suitable candidate? Where are your priorities, Regent Johnson?

 [Added later, a reader emailed: Johnson had his office at the state capitol decorated with sports paraphernalia from Minnesota teams. He is a Lutheran minister.  ...he could have served as the model for Elmer Gantry in the novel by Minnesota native Sinclair Lewis...]

That a member of the Board of Regents whose responsibility is to find a new president is so out of touch as to laud Wefald, former president of K-State, is a pretty sad indication of how out of touch he is.

Minnesota regent Dean Johnson wants next school president to make an impact on struggling football program

Johnson was at the Bierman football complex Tuesday, as he has been other days since Tim Brewster was fired as head coach.

Johnson's responsibility as one of 12 regents isn't to find a new football coach. His responsibility is to help find a successor to departing university President Bob Bruininks. 

But Johnson, 63, who was majority leader of the state Senate for four years and was influential in the Minnesota Twins getting Target Field built as well as the university getting TCF Bank Stadium built, wants a president who can make an impact on the Gophers' perennially floundering football program. 

[How about our perennially floundering academic programs, Regent Johnson.  Why does Wisconsin kick our butts in both athletics and academics. Maybe you and the other regents might look into this?]

"The University of Minnesota has three things to do: teach, provide research and outreach," Johnson said Tuesday. "The first two are extremely important. The third, the outreach — I can think of no better outreach than to have a winning football team, a Big Ten championship and a competitive national football team.

[Ah, ever the politician.  A man's gotta have his priorities.]

"If the Golden Gophers were to go back to the Rose Bowl or be nationally competitive, that helps us get through the workday; that takes care of a lot of things."

[Does providing a quality education at an affordable price take care of a lot of things, Regent Johnson?] 

"We can see this in other universities," Johnson said. "My friend John Wefald I've talked to two, three times. I asked him about this. When he arrived at Kansas State, they had $8 million in their foundation. Today they have $108 million in their foundation.

"They went from the bottom of the barrel. They were actually thinking about putting Kansas State in the Missouri Valley Conference, kicking them out of the Big 12. He said there's importance to a president choosing and supporting a head football coach and the program and all athletics."

John Wefald?  K-State?  Surely you jest, Regent Johnson, or you are completely unaware of the athletics mess at K-State.  A homework assignment for you is: 

"The saint of KSU is a panting jocksniffer who has handed much of KSU’s money to a dirtily run football program. He has also engaged in nepotism and conflict of interest. Wefald is your basic long-running banana republic leader. Power went to his head. The Topeka Capital-Journal provides details of his conflict of interest."

Audit found conflict of interest for Wefald, Krause, Glasscock  [Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal]

Among other things, this shows that much of the bloom is off the rose in Kansas when it comes to Wefald and his record. An awful lot of people are very upset. You might check:

From my conversations around town, the tone is miles away from hagiographic. "Furious" and "disgusted" captures it much better. New President Schulz and new AD Currie have been beating the drum of openness and accountability perhaps because they believe it (and I think they do), but also because alums, friends, and taxpayers are insisting on it.

I have not heard or read a single defense of Wefald’s actions in this affair.

Puhleeze... Regent Johnson.  Do your homework. 

And maybe you should stay out of Bierman.  President Bruininks was/is a great athletic supporter.  And yet we have the current mess.  Explain that, please?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

World University Rankings 2010

Where Do Minnesota and Wisconsin Stand In

 Subject Area Rankings?

The propaganda mill at the University of Minnesota would have you believe that we are still on our way to becoming one of the third greatest public research universities in the world.  For example, as late as last December, President Bruininks was still making statements like this:

...we're in the midst of transformative change en route to becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world. [sic] President Bruininks Dec 7, 2009 (web site)

 This at at time when he was perfectly aware that the wheels were coming off the bus.  Students have been aware for quite some time that all is not well in Gopherville.  As the Daily put it:

"As for commitment to quality education at an affordable cost? Meaningless drivel. The administration has flatly failed on its promises of excellence and affordability." Daily (13 Oct 2009)

Her [Professor Martin] question is about the quality of the student experience: Students are paying a lot more than when President Bruininks started in office, and the assumption has been that quality of the experience would increase as well. Now they are hearing that the quality is eroding. How can the University play in the global village when its costs are increasing and the student experience is declining in quality?
And even the deans, usually stalwart supporters of the administration, for obvious reasons, have publicly been expressing displeasure about the financial management of the university:

Dean Davis-Blake [Carlson School of Management] said that quality is going down because the quality of the student experience has declined, which is related to uncontrollable central costs. At the Carlson School, they have fewer TAs, fewer classes, more students in classes, the building is less clean, there are fewer advisers, they have more adjuncts, and they have less information technology. All of these things are happening.

So given all this pain and suffering, where do we stand in our march to greatness?  By 2014 will we be in the top three, Mr. President?

Not bloody likely...

[Note: most of the universities - in the world - are public.  I have pulled out just the US publics for comparison purposes.  It is clear that "in the world" was an absurd addition to an already unreachable goal.  Even if these rankings are only moderately accurate, they serve to illustrate what a tough position we are in if the administration continues on its pigheaded way. ]

Arts and Humanities

Berkeley 4
Michigan 18
Texas 45

Wisconsin 56

Illinois 68
Rutgers 85
Indiana 88
Pittsburgh 99
Virginia  101
North Carolina 103
City University of New York 110
UC  Irvine 117

Minnesota 120

Life Sciences and Medicine

Berkeley 5
Washington 29
Michigan 33
UC - Davis 44

Wisconsin  47

North Carolina 74
Illinois 75
Texas 70
Purdue 86

Minnesota 96

Natural Sciences

Berkeley 5
UC-Santa Barbara 28
Illinois 34
Michigan 38
Texas 41
Washington 60

Wisconsin 63

Penn State 78
UC - Davis 105
Maryland 110
Colorado 116
Purdue 118

Minnesota 120

Social Sciences and Management

Berkeley 5

Michigan 14

Wisconsin 31

Texas 36
Illinois 44
North Carolina 45

Minnesota 50

Engineering and Technology

Berkeley 3
Georgia Tech 13
Illinois 16
Michigan 19
Texas 27
Purdue 28

Wisconsin 60

UC Santa Barbara 63
Washington 66

Minnesota 80

Mr. President:  I have a very simple question.  Why, exactly is it that Wisconsin has consistently kicked our butts academically?  I won't even mention football.  Do they have overwhelming financial resources?  Why exactly is this?


Monday, October 25, 2010

Could we please be honest about the cost of research

at the University of Minnesota?

Fish or Cut Bait

part II.

FRPE calls our attention to the great comments of Christopher Braider on the article Crisis of the Humanities II from the New York Times:

While you've got the basic outline of the financial plight especially of public universities down right, you've still got the arithmetic wrong. 
You are of course right that humanities departments don't bring in grant money the way the sciences do. And yet, as you concede, they have still traditionally made a profit since the overheads (including salaries, benefits, and plant and utility costs) are lower than the tuition revenue they generate. 
And if this was true before the current financial crisis arose, it remains true now since tuition continues to more than cover the costs.
The financial situation in the humanities hasn't changed because it has never depended on either external grants (since they have never generated any) or state funding (not needed since tuition covers it all). I'd even go further and claim that the profits humanities departments have actually increased during the crisis. 
At institutions like my own here in Colorado, salaries have been frozen for two years now and, EXCEPT, typically, in the natural sciences, faculty positions left open by departures and retirements are generally left vacant. Yet tuition has sky-rocketed, with the result that the ratio between faculty costs and tuition revenue is even more favorable than it was before. 
So what has really changed if it isn't the profit-loss calculation for the humanities? What has changed is that the catastrophic decline in state funding means that universities no longer have a way to cover the structural shortfalls created by Big Science. 
While science departments do indeed bring in extra-mural funding, that funding has NEVER sufficed to cover the cost. This has meant that the losses the sciences incur had to be made up with state money. 
Once state money dries up, that leaves only two options: rapidly rising tuition for ALL students, whatever their majors, and cannibalizing the rest of the institution to pay the bills the sciences run up. 
Until this basic fact of life is faced for what it is, administrators will continue to do what your report of their standard defense of their policies leads them to: invest ever more money in big science (as, here in Colorado, they go on doing in absolute as well as relative terms) in the HOPE that the research dollars science brings in will somehow, someday catch up with the costs. 
The problem is that, even in the good times, they never caught up with the costs; and they're much less likely to do so now precisely because the general public funding situation is so bleak. 
The result is this: what looks like hard-eyed realism is in fact fantasy, and all the more clearly so when administrators talk, as they do, of potential patents--the idea that molecular biologists, for example, will make some breakthrough in bio-technology that will in turn brings floods of money pouring in in the form of huge licensing fees. 
Nothing of the sort has ever happened, and certainly nothing on the scale necessary to recoup the giant losses sustained in providing the infrastructure big science needs.

See my earlier posts on this important topic:
Is the Biomedical Research Bubble About to Burst? (How will this affect the University of Minnesota?)
 The Dirty Little Secret About Research Universities and the Cost of Education is Slowly Emerging
If You Build It, Grants Will Come? Or, Could Someone at BigU Please Be Honest and Responsible About Expansion of Biomedical Research?

Trees Do Not Grow to The Sky or, Why the State Legislature Should Not Write a Blank Check to BigU for Biomedical Research Buildings 

"A Plethora of Platitudes?"

University of Minnesota Student

Calls for Fairness and Making  Educational

Mission Our Top Priority

Student Statement:

2:01 Paul Strain Vice Chair of the Student Representatives to the Board

Remarks made to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents on October 8 (2010)

The challenge of developing a request that takes into consideration both the  needs of the university and the budget realities of our state is clear.

We must articulate a message to the state  legislature on the importance of the University of Minnesota primarily by accentuating our teaching mission and also highlighting our profound research accomplishments.

We must show that in response to decreased state support students tuition has been used to balance the budget and finance our university's future.

Unfortunately this method of revenue recovery is disproportionately placing the cost burden on the students and in turn negatively impacting the teaching quality of our institution.

The rate at which our tuition is increased compared to the increase in the quality of education has become disproportionate.

We must also ask whether our private scholarship support is sustainable alongside our dramatic  increases in tuition and loss of stimulus dollars

Are there substantive benefits in education that students are receiving by a doubling in tuition in the last decade?

How are these increases manageable? If so can we defend these increases without a plethora of platitudes about academic improvements.

We, the student representatives, ask that the Board and the University administration continue to recapitulate the discussion about cost-drivers at the university and evaluate  whether or not these costs are advancing the academic mission of this fine institution or whether they are stagnating our ability to advance excellence.
The education of our students at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional level must remain the most important priority.

We know that your advocacy for higher education is unwavering but we believe that the Board must remain critical of the university's endeavours that  do not improve our academic ability to educate Minnesota's future workforce.  

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Another Brilliant Public Relations Move

From Morrill Hall

(Dan Wolter sings: the equivalent of the fat lady at the U of M?)

You'd think after getting his nose bloodied annually in the ethanol fight at the House That  Bob Built, President Bruininks would know better by now.

You'd think he wouldn't want to further antagonize those in the legislature or the citizens of the state.

Not our Bob...

From the Star-Tribune:

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks has entered the dicey debate over selling alcohol at the school's new football stadium.

He plans to revisit discussions with regents and lawmakers about allowing liquor sales at TCF Bank Stadium on the U campus, but only in the premium seats.

"He wants to begin discussions with alumni and the regents to see if the will is there," Dan Wolter, a university spokesman, said Friday.

Wolter estimated the change would generate $1.57 million for athletic expenses, student scholarships and paying down the stadium debt.

[Basis of estimate, please?  How much would go to scholarships? 20% cited in Pioneer-Press article. Please stop trying to use academics as an excuse for athletic shilling...]

"Everyone thinks this is about making money off selling alcohol," Wolter said. "What it does is adds to the attractiveness of the venue and the [premium] seats."

Of the 50,000 seats available in TCF Bank Stadium -- which opened last fall -- roughly 1,500 are premium seats.

Needless to say there were some choice comments.  

Perhaps the President has other more pressing problems to worry about next year?  

Or perhaps this is just a smokescreen to keep attention away from a more important problem: 

What is the tuition increase going to be next year, Mr. President?


Friday, October 22, 2010

President Bruininks Tries the

Old Quarterback Sneak on

Alcohol in

The House That Bob Built

After staying out of the debate last year, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks said Thursday that he wants to push in the upcoming legislative session to eliminate restrictions on alcohol sales at the Gophers football stadium. 

The anticipated earnings, which Bruininks estimated at $1.5 million per year, could be used to shore up the football program, fund student scholarships and pay down stadium debt. 

Board of Regents chairman Clyde Allen said Thursday that he hadn't spoken with Bruininks about the idea and couldn't predict how the board — which serves as the U's governing body — would react.

"It would take some very thorough discussion by the board to see where we want to be in terms of putting it in the legislative hopper," Allen said. "I'll listen to all the arguments."

And the proposal would face an uncertain future at the Capitol. 

There are strong feelings, particularly in the House,
that if booze were available for purchase in the pricey seats, it should be available in the less-expensive seats, too, said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights
If the Legislature continued to require sales in general seating, he [Bruininks] said, "I think it will not be something that will be supported by me or the U's board of regents." 

"If you have, let's say, $300,000 a year you put into student scholarships, that's pretty significant. It would take about $7 million of private fundraising to create an endowment that would produce that much money every year. If you think about that in perpetuity, that would really have a huge impact on keeping higher education affordable for thousands of young people in the long term," he said. 

See, he's doing it for the children...

Bob, you should be ashamed of yourself.  This scholarship business is just a "tax" that you are willing to pay in order to generate more revenue for the football program.  Admit it, please, and cut out this charade.

We are not stupid.  You propose to hand over about 20% to the students for scholarships it appears. 300K/1.5 mil = 20%. 

Retire the debt?  Aren't students already helping - involuntarily - to do this?  

"For shame!"  As my grandma used to say. 


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is Minnesota’s Diabetes Project the Real Deal?

When EF Hutton Speaks...

When Thomas Lee speaks, people should pay attention.

From Med-City News:


When the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic decided to focus much of their research partnership on one medical need, three topics made the final cut: Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart failure. launching Decade of Discovery — a $250 million-to-$350 million diabetes partnership — the university and Mayo are opting for an approach that requires the help of virtually everyone with a stake in Minnesota’s healthcare economy: hospitals, payers, food manufacturers, device companies, biotech startups.

The university and Mayo Clinic are betting Minnesota’s economic future (and credibility) on the type of high-risk, high-reward project that the state’s risk-averse culture has never been good at accepting.

Brad Lehrman, a venture attorney with Lommen Abdo who co-founded Mojo Minnesota, applauds the partnership for thinking big. But the market should determine Minnesota’s economic focus — not a government, institution or initiative, he said. Lehrman remembers when the state launched a high-profile effort to create a biotechnology industry. That didn’t go particularly well, he said. Minnesota continues to flirt with clean energy like wind and biofuels. But that flirtation hasn’t paid off, either.

(Anyone remember E-85? I didn’t think so.)

If there is one industry Minnesota should “pick,” it’s one we’re already good at: medical devices. But some experts fear Minnesota is losing its edge even in that industry.

One financial adviser who specializes in medical technology told me he worries about big medical device firms buying up smaller, homegrown companies and startups, like St. Jude Medical Inc.’s planned $1.3 billion acquisition of AGA Medical Holdings.

“Where’s the next Medtronic going to come from?” if the big companies just continue to snatch up the smaller ones, he asked.

 Given the lack of early stage capital and an increasingly skeptical Food and Drug Administration, Minnesota should focus its attention on strengthening the innovation ecosystem that produced Medtronic and St. Jude in the first place, he said.

Diabetes, after all, is the Number One public health problem in America. There are a number of ways to prevent and treat it, including medical devices. Medtronic, for example, is developing an integrated sensor and insulin pump system, otherwise known as an artificial pancreas.

Yes, Minnesota has plenty of brainpower. But it has traditionally lacked the things the diabetes partnership needs to succeed: strong leadership, long-term commitment, and most importantly, money … lots of it. In terms of leadership, well, the partnership looks good on paper. The university and Mayo Clinic are a good start, though their six-year-old biotechnogy and genomics partnership has produced only one startup and some grant wins.

But in the end, money talks the loudest. University and Mayo officials say they will need at least $20 million from the cash-strapped state. Good luck with that.

“We have legislators who have already made the investment in the (university and Mayo genomics) partnership,” Dr. Cerra said. “The proof of concept is done.”

But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Even if the state ponies up the money, the partnership still needs private capital. And here’s where the partnership can offer the biggest benefit to Minnesota, which has seen promising startups fold or move because of a lack of early stage money.

If the partnership can effectively market the state as a diabetes hub, we might see some venture dollars roll in. It’s pretty telling that the co-chair of the oversight committee is Vance Opperman, president of Key Investments in Minneapolis and one of the best-known investors in Minnesota.

Or maybe this is all wishful thinking. Fairy tale or not, the diabetes partnership will dominate the state’s agenda for years to come. That’s one major reason why LifeScience Alley and BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota recently joined forces to form a “strategic affiliation” to better promote this initiative. It’s not a coincidence that BioBusiness Alliance CEO Dale Wahlstrom, who also will lead LifeScience Alley, sits on the diabetes oversight committee.

In the end, the best way to measure the success of the diabetes partnership is to follow the money. If the partnership can attract private investment, then we’ve got something cooking.

If not, then the state will have wasted its time on yet another economic pipe dream.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Is the Biomedical Research Bubble

About to Burst?

(How will this affect the University of Minnesota?)

I have been concerned about this problem for some time, especially as it relates to a commitment at the University to this area.  If funding collapses the university may be left in an untenable situation, due to unwise investments.   It would be best not to place all of our eggs in one basket as our endowment manager hopefully learned last year.

For some background, please see:

If You Build It, Grants Will Come? Or, Could Someone at BigU Please Be Honest and Responsible About Expansion of Biomedical Research?

Trees Do Not Grow to The Sky or, Why the State Legislature Should Not Write a Blank Check to BigU for Biomedical Research Buildings 
Now comes other thoughts of a bubble about to burst...

The United States still reels from the aftermath of the financial crisis. Many of us in the biomedical-research community, meanwhile, fear that our field may face a recession of its own in the not-too-distant future.

...biomedical research is endangered by its precarious position atop a bubble of unsustainable financial practices. The unrestricted grant-making policies of the National Institutes of Health inflate the number of biomedical researchers in a fashion that cannot be matched by the availability of research funds and might eventually lead to a shortage of financial support for biomedical research.

The trouble begins with how lead scientists must often scrounge for money to keep their research programs alive. Grantees' home institutions—that is, universities and research institutes—typically pay principal investigators' salaries and start-up costs for a limited period of time, after which the lead scientists are expected to attract external backing that will cover their programs, including their salaries. 

Enter the NIH—the primary agency that supports fundamental biomedical research in the United States—and other organizations, which provide money not only for materials, equipment, and stipends for research assistants, but also for the salaries of principal investigators once their start-up money has run out.

... for universities and research institutes to continually bring new researchers onboard depends on the assumption that new money will keep getting into the system and that the flow of new money will satisfy ever-increasing growth. That, however, is rarely the case, whether one is dealing with start-up Internet companies, the subprime-loan market—or scientific research. In fact, the flexibility of the NIH budget and its potential growth are highly limited, as the NIH budget has been flat since 2003.

Because ... institutional lust for expanding research and getting a larger piece of the NIH budget, it is expected that an increasing number of new, externally paid faculty positions will open and put increasing pressure on the NIH's extramural funding. This is the money that the NIH gives to research institutions and universities to support studies conducted outside of the institute.

...any future increase in available NIH funds is limited, so the inevitable result of this unbalanced growth is ... Studies will run short on funding, research centers and laboratories will close, and scientists, research assistants, and support-staff members will lose their livelihoods.

To avoid such a recession in biomedical research, universities, research institutions, and the NIH must work together to ensure that any growth in the number of principal-investigator positions reflects the predicted growth in available financial resources.

One solution is to change the NIH's grant-making policy to require that a principal investigator's salary—or at least a substantial part of it—be paid for by the investigator's home institution. The National Science Foundation has already adopted such a policy, providing no more than two months' salary for a P.I. per year.

...universities and research institutions, if forced to bear the financial burden of hiring and paying investigators themselves, would plan their hiring strategies far more carefully. Because an investigator without funds for materials and research assistants is of little use, home institutions would also be forced to consider the present and future availability of research grants. That extra consideration, in turn, would ensure a better balance between the aspirations of universities and research institutions, and the ability of the NIH to subsidize those ambitions.

President Bruininks, Dean Cerra, and the Board of Regents: Are you listening?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Are Our Universities Corporate Sellouts?

Are our institutions of higher learning becoming dens of corporate complicity? That’s the thread running through a spate of recent stories that reveal how a trio of heavies—Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma—are pulling strings at U.S. universities. Each tale, on its own, is unsettling. Taken together, they paint a picture of collusion in which intellectual freedom and moral decency take a back seat to the mighty promise of profit.

Mother Jones details in its Sept.-Oct. issue how a young man having psychotic episodes was coerced into a pharmaceutical industry study at the University of Minnesota—and ended up dead. The tragic tale, based on a great piece of newspaper reporting by Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is a vivid glimpse into the dark side of market-driven drug trials.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on “The Secret Lives of Big Pharma’s ‘Thought Leaders,’” also known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs: the influential academic physician-researchers who are paid by drug companies to basically shill for their brands—but not overtly, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they deftly blend their conflicting roles and realize substantial payouts for their credibility-lending efforts. “The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school,” writes Carl Elliott for The Chronicle. The piece makes me want to read Elliot’s new book, White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon Press).

Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it. 

It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.