Rocky Road in Chicago

Professor at Columbia College loses institution's support for her conference and could lose her tenure too.
November 2, 2009

Zafra M. Lerman, a longtime chemistry professor at Columbia College Chicago, has won dozens of awards for her work promoting science education. She's secured millions of dollars in research funding from the National Science Foundation and the state of Illinois. But, for decades, she's had a contentious relationship with her institution.

In 1991, Lerman was removed from her job chairing the college’s science and math department and instead given leadership of the Institute for Science Education and Science Communication there. In 2005, she protested a midnight raid on a lab she oversaw and the resulting firing of a researcher who created a Web site critical of the college’s president, Warrick L. Carter.

Now, Columbia has pulled its support of one of her pet projects, the Malta Conference -- a biennial meeting of Middle Eastern scientists aimed at promoting peace through collaboration -- and appears to be attempting to stall her work on the event, set to convene November 14 in Amman, Jordan. Lerman and her supporters say the college is blocking her from using donations from sources other than the college to pay for the event.

The root of the college’s most recent actions, said Laurel Bellows, Lerman’s lawyer, is the professor’s history of criticism of Carter and the college’s Board of Trustees. She filed a complaint earlier this year after finding evidence that suggests the college “discriminates in its employment practices." Bellows would not elaborate on the complaint before its resolution.

“She’s been critical for a long time and they want to get rid of her, but she’s tenured so it’s much tougher,” Bellows said -- but the college seems to think it has evidence against her. "There's at least one specific person who wants to see Zafra removed from the school," she said, declining to say who other than someone "at the highest levels" of Columbia's hierarchy.

Diane Doyne, a Columbia spokeswoman, wouldn’t comment on Lerman’s employment status or complaint, saying she can’t speak on personnel matters.

The latest round of tensions came to the fore in early October, as soon as Lerman returned to Chicago after delivering a speech at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo. “She came back to find this failure of support,” Bellows said, “she couldn’t get things done, she couldn’t access the Malta Conference bank account.”

Bellows said Columbia has slowly paid conference bills in the last few weeks but is, essentially, “holding this money hostage.” The account, she said, houses contributions from the college but also includes funds donated by UNESCO, the American Chemical Society, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and other sponsors. “They have not refused to give Zafra control of the account, but they have not taken steps to give her control, either.”

Doyne said the college “continue[s] to provide the administrative support – including payment of invoices -- that makes the conference possible.” She did not address the question of whether Lerman has access to the account.

As October went on, Bellows said, the situation got worse. Lerman’s international calling account was canceled and the lock on her office door was changed. By October 25, “someone had instructed the institute staff not to talk to Zafra, to do nothing more on assisting with Malta.” Her assistant was told that Columbia was no longer financing his travels to Amman for the conference and that he’d have to take vacation days to attend.

Doyne would not comment on whether a college administrator had instructed Lerman’s staff not to talk to her or assist her, again citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.

Doyne did confirm, though, that the college would no longer be providing financial support for the Malta Conference, but pointed to the economy, not the back-and-forth with Lerman. “Given the challenging economic times, we’ve chosen to focus on activities that support the core mission of the college,” she said. “We continue to support the conference’s ideals and we do continue to provide nonmonetary support.”

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Jennifer Epstein

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