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A Mess at Michigan

A Mess at Michigan
May 25, 2010

On Sept. 4, 2008, Andrei Borisov was in his Ann Arbor office, waiting for a meeting in which he planned to give his bosses at the University of Michigan documents supporting accusations he had made about a colleague's alleged academic misconduct, among other things. But before the morning was over, Borisov had been forced to sign a resignation letter, arrested for trespassing (in his own office) and for disturbing the peace, and taken from the campus in handcuffs by public safety officers whose presence at the meeting had been arranged, in advance, by his superiors.

The chain of events that preceded that incident, and those that have unfolded in the months since, are, like many personnel clashes in higher education, heavily disputed.

However, two faculty committees at Michigan -- in reports made public Monday by the university's student newspaper, The Michigan Daily -- have concluded that Borisov's "academic freedom and scholarship were infringed, that he was falsely accused of threatening behavior as part of a possible cover-up of misconduct and/or mismanagement, and that he suffered professional and personal damages," as one of the reports phrased it.

Michigan administrators did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the faculty panels' findings. Nor did Borisov, who filed a lawsuit against the university last fall, respond to a telephone message left at his home.

But the two reports -- one of which was endorsed by the executive committee of Michigan's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the other prepared by a three-member Faculty Hearing Council of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, but rejected by a 5-1 vote of the advisory committee (because they felt it presented an incomplete picture) -- tell a generally consistent, if one-sided, story of apparent mistreatment of Borisov.

Although university administrators acknowledge that the accounts are one-sided in part because Michigan officials declined to offer their perspective to the investigators, citing the pending litigation, they say the imbalance undermines the reports' credibility. "[T]he fact remains that this investigation is one-sided and for that reason is unfair, unwise and harmful," Provost Teresa Sullivan wrote in response to a draft of the faculty hearing council's report in March.

The dozens of pages of the two reports, which summarize hundreds more of evidentiary material on which the two panels relied in reaching their findings, cover a wide range of issues, which are only briefly related here. The gist: Borisov began work as a research investigator at Michigan's medical school in the mid-1990s, and collaborated on research, presentations and papers (mostly on pediatric internal medicine) during much of the 2000s with Mark Russell, a tenure-track scientist there.

But during the latter half of the decade, Russell and Borisov clashed over who owned the rights to data at the core of their joint research, a unilateral decision by Russell to reduce the share of financial support Borisov received from their joint grants, and increasingly negative evaluations of Borisov's work. At about the same time, Borisov began compiling evidence of what he characterized as "academic misconduct, plagiarism of my data, false progress reports to funding agencies including the [National Institutes of Health], depriving me [of] the research funds," and a "cover-up" and "harassment" by medical school administrators. He also explored a move to another department within Michigan's medical school.

The Fateful September Meeting

That, in greatly truncated form, was more or less the context in which Borisov was set to meet on Sept. 4 with Margaret Gyetko, associate dean of the medical school, for an encounter he thought was to be about his accusations about how he had been treated, and to arrange for him to resign to pursue a job in another department. Although Borisov had received an "unofficial" offer in June to transfer to the Department of Internal Medicine, the official offer had been held up in the medical school's faculty affairs office, purportedly because of the need to post the job internally.

But according to evidence compiled by the two faculty committees, Michigan officials were pursuing another agenda entirely. The chair of the pediatrics department, Valerie Castle, had sent Borisov a letter in early June giving him 90 days to improve his performance or face termination. A few days later, she sent an e-mail to a group of officials about Borisov that said "this is not a RIF," referring to a "reduction in force," suggesting to the faculty committee that she had already made up her mind that Borisov would be fired.

On Sept. 4, after Borisov gave Gyetko the documentation to support his accusations, the AAUP report said, she told him that he would have to resign his current position to accept the new one in internal medicine, and directed him to Castle's office -- where he was met by the plainclothes public safety officers, reportedly because Russell had suggested to Castle that Borisov had physically threatened him in a conversation on the campus two days earlier.

"Doctor, I think -- I'll tell you what's going to happen here," one of the officers said to Borisov that morning, according to the transcript of a recording the researcher made as events unfolded. "As soon as you're done here, whether you want to sign it or not, we're going to remove your stuff, you're going to be read the trespass statute. You're no longer allowed at the University of Michigan Med School property unless the chief of police of the University of Michigan tells you you can...."

The officers then took Borisov to his office, and when they stopped him from taking any of his materials, and he balked at leaving, they read him the trespass statute -- and "within minutes" had him in handcuffs, according to the AAUP report, which is based on the transcript of the recording."The audio ... indicates that Dr. Borisov was trying to show officers his briefcase but officers could not determine whether the contents belonged to Borisov or others. They ordered him to 'drop the bag' and when he did not do so instantly, they seized him and arrested him for trespassing."

Days later, the internal medicine department's offer to Borisov was withdrawn, and the researcher was told that he was ineligible for rehiring at the university because of his "altercation with the Department of Public Safety."

In April 2009, a Michigan jury cleared Borisov of all of the charges levied against him that day (in addition to a charge of assaulting a police officer that was added weeks later).

Last fall, lawyers for Borisov sued several officials at Michigan for fraud and defamation, amid other charges. In the meantime, the faculty groups undertook their own reviews of what went sour in the relationship between the researcher and the university.

Although the report from Michigan's AAUP calls on the parent national faculty association to undertake its own investigation, some faculty leaders on the campus still express confidence that a less confrontational resolution can be reached.

 

 

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