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November 21, 2001

Pitt will pay legal fees incurred during internal proceedings for those cleared of research misconduct charges

Faculty and staff exonerated of research misconduct will be reimbursed for legal counsel fees they incur during University proceedings, Pitt administrators said last week.

Senate Council on Nov. 12 unanimously approved a resolution to automatically indemnify employees accused but subsequently cleared of research misconduct charges, after Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Provost James Maher (who are voting members of the Council) indicated they supported the change.

“About 10 years ago, the National Institutes of Health forced upon universities the use of their internal processes for research integrity cases,” Maher explained. “These processes can leave our employees — in particular, faculty researchers who are accused of research misconduct — in a very vulnerable position, so that they need legal counsel at an earlier stage in the investigative process than ever before.”

He and Nordenberg emphasized that the new policy must be carefully worded. “We don’t want it to be extended to other internal academic processes” such as appeals of tenure decisions, Maher said.

In cases where employees are found to have committed research “improprieties” but not full-fledged misconduct, Pitt indemnification committees should decide whether or not Pitt reimburses the employees’ legal fees, according to the Senate Council resolution, which Faculty Assembly had endorsed earlier this month.

Currently, committees also determine whether Pitt should reimburse employees found innocent of misconduct. The last time that happened was during the mid-1990s, when a three-member committee that included Provost Maher voted to indemnify public health professor Carol Redmond for legal fees she incurred in successfully defending herself against misconduct charges in connection with a Pitt-based breast cancer research project.

As currently written, Pitt’s indemnification policy provides for legal defense and payment of judgments, fines and other expenses incurred in connection with actual or threatened legal actions against Pitt employees when serving the University.

But until it’s rewritten to reflect the changes approved by Senate Council, the policy does not extend to in-house proceedings.

Also at its Nov. 12 meeting, Senate Council voted to table a resolution recommending that hearings on research misconduct allegations be open at the request of the accused.

Currently, hearings would be open only if the accused employee, as well as his or her accusers, request that they be open.

Members of the Senate’s tenure and academic freedom committee (TAFC) claim that’s tantamount to saying hearings will be closed, because both sides are unlikely to want open hearings.

Provost Maher said the new policy can be amended, but he noted that federal guidelines (primarily aimed at protecting whistleblowers) call for hearings to be open only if both sides agree.

Even if that requirement would remain in effect, Pitt’s policy enables employees accused of misconduct to confront their accusers, Maher stressed.

“These hearings involve the accused and the accuser both being very actively involved,” the provost said. “The accused can have an attorney if he or she so chooses. The process itself has lots of protections. The question really is the extent to which the confidentiality of both the whistleblower and the accused will be guaranteed early in the process.”

As the process drags on, the identities of accusers and accused can’t be kept secret, Maher acknowledged.

TAFC chairperson Herbert Needleman agreed to table his committee’s resolution until the next Senate Council meeting, scheduled for Dec. 3. In the meantime, TAFC and Pitt administrators will study the issue further, especially the question of federal guidelines mandating closed hearings unless both sides request open ones.

Needleman said his committee believes “it’s an important principle, in such a high-stakes game, that the person accused of research misconduct be able to confront his or her accuser in public.”

Needleman himself was the last Pitt employee to request public hearings in a research misconduct case.

During the early 1990s, Needleman successfully defended himself against charges that he misrepresented his research into the dangers of lead poisoning. Pitt’s administration agreed to open hearings in Needleman’s case in 1992, after he filed a federal lawsuit demanding to confront his accusers in public.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 7

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