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February 8, 2001


For quite some time, the University has had a policy that provides incentive payments to principal investigators (PIs) of funded research grants, of an amount equal to a percentage of the grant's indirect costs. Such payments have been used by PIs for equipment, supplies, travel and other research-related expenses. According to the provost, in 1985 School of Medicine PIs were permitted to use their incentive payments to supplement their compensation, in accord with the plans adopted by the various departments. (Hereinafter, RIPC refers to a research incentive plan or plans that permit use of the payments to supplement compensation.) Last fall the medical school's RIPC were reviewed, culminating in the issuance of a document by Dean Arthur S. Levine entitled, "Research Incentive Plan," to be effective July 1, 2001. Applicable to faculty with primary appointments in the medical school, it replaces the existing departmental plans.

A question was raised about the extent to which Dr. Levine consulted with medical school leaders and faculty. He stated at the Dec. 4 Senate Council meeting that the new plan was discussed at a medical faculty meeting. Because only 37 of the 1,800-plus medical school faculty members were present, Dr. Levine said, he did not feel it was useful to put the proposal to a vote.

While the medical school's new RIPC was being developed, interest was expressed in establishing an RIPC at the Graduate School of Public Health. Apparently, examination of this subject was prompted, at least in part, by GSPH Interim Dean Herbert Rosenkranz. An RIPC was first considered at GSPH by the school's planning and budget policies committee, and subsequently by the GSPH Council, the governance body of the GSPH, which includes elected faculty. The council decided to obtain faculty views on the subject, and a faculty meeting was scheduled, with the notice clearly indicating the meeting's subject.

More than half of the GSPH faculty attended the meeting. I was present and can report that there were many excellent contributions to the discussion. The discussion encompassed consideration of values; the appropriateness of personal financial incentives for research without corresponding incentives for other faculty activity; the need for financial incentives to allow the school to remain competitive with other schools of public health and other institutions, including medical schools, that seek faculty with talent in the same areas as GSPH faculty; the possibility an RIPC would further de-emphasize instruction and discourage research collaboration, and whether an RIPC would lead PIs to select research topics and funding sources based on RIPC payment opportunities, in preference to other types of funding sources with lower prospects for such payments. The result of that meeting was a decision to place the RIPC proposal on a printed ballot for a vote by the entire GSPH faculty. Also put to a vote was whether to cap supplemental compensation at $20,000 per year; the medical school cap is $100,000 per year.

Well over half the GSPH faculty returned ballots. Faculty voted 56-35 in favor of establishing an RIPC, and endorsed the $20,000 cap by a vote of 47-38. Interim Dean Rosenkranz forwarded the faculty's recommendation to Dr. Levine, who is also senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences.

Note the considerable difference between the medical school's process and the process at GSPH. The medical school meeting drew only 37 faculty members. The agenda for the medical school faculty meeting included nine items, one of which consisted of four committee reports. The third of these reports was entitled, "Update on Compensation Rationale: Dr. Levine," and meeting minutes indicate that RIPC was the subject under that heading. Often, people decide whether to attend a meeting based on the meeting's subject, and whether they will have any role in a decision. The agenda of the medical school meeting provided no clear indication that Dr. Levine would put forward his plan to replace the departmental RIPC with a single, school-wide RIPC.

One might account for the difference between the processes at the two schools by the fact that Dr. Levine had no prior academic experience, let alone academic leadership experience, before assuming his administrative positions here. After completing his graduate medical training, Dr. Levine spent his entire career at the National Institutes of Health as a researcher and functionary.

In contrast, GSPH's interim dean had served as a department chairperson here, and had held academic appointments elsewhere. Encouraging faculty to participate in discussions of issues that may have substantial impact on them, with a focused meeting followed by a faculty vote, is consistent with the culture of an academic institution. No similar process was evident at the medical school regarding Dr. Levine's proposal. (For what it is worth, I agree with Dr. Levine's decision to have a single RIPC. The argument that each department may have to address its specific needs, and thus should have its own, tailored RIPC, is not very persuasive.) One other RIPC-related matter is whether RIPC raises issues about University values and processes, on which the views of faculty in schools that do not have RIPC should be taken into account. For faculty in many schools here, there are no funding sources, such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, that pay full indirect costs. Thus, as a practical matter, the opportunity to receive such supplemental compensation does not exist for many faculty who have well-supported research programs. Is a process that provides the opportunity for supplemental compensation for some faculty of the University appropriate, when such rewards are not available to others with similar research production?

The process followed at GSPH, with active faculty participation, provided a way to give the RIPC issue a thorough airing. I doubt that many faculty believe a dean or other academic administrator should necessarily feel bound by a majority vote of faculty on an issue. But by allowing, if not fostering, debate on an issue, a greater understanding of the pros and cons of a course of action can be achieved, and the academic administrator's decision-making process is likely to be better, and the decision more likely to be accepted by those who disagree with it.

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