Officials squabble over funding for UMB school of public health

August 03, 2006|By GADI DECHTER | GADI DECHTER,SUN REPORTER

A behind-the-scenes fight over funding has thrown the establishment of a new University of Maryland, Baltimore school of public health into turmoil, internal documents and interviews show.

At issue is how the university can spin off part of its medical school as the backbone of the new entity without diverting funds from the school of medicine.

The dispute reveals a degree of discord within the state's medical school that is unusual even for the fractious world of academe, and it offers a glimpse into the high-stakes political maneuvering that emerges when science, money, power and outsized personalities collide.

When the state Board of Regents approved in June plans for the first new school on the downtown campus since 1961, it did so with assurances from university President David J. Ramsay that his institution would use "existing resources" to fund the school.

Some faculty, staff and students from its highly regarded department of epidemiology and preventive medicine were expected to transfer their affiliation to the new school of public health.

Soon afterward, the chairman of the epidemiology department - expected to become dean of the new school - learned that Ramsay had also pledged to the incoming dean of medicine that no funds would be transferred from the medical school for the purpose of establishing another.

But that's exactly where the money was supposed to come from, Glenn Morris, the epidemiology chairman, believed.

"We have a problem," Morris said to Ramsay in a July 9 e-mail. "I don't think we can move back from this concept - to do so would effectively kill the new School, and that would be a major blow to the credibility of UMB."

Over the next several weeks, as he apparently became more concerned about the university's commitment to the school he expected to lead, Morris fired off a series of letters to the president and to the University System of Maryland chancellor, some that included warnings of serious action he would take unless the university provided him with written assurance of its financial commitments to the new school.

He further demanded that these assurances be provided before Aug. 18, the application deadline of the agency that accredits schools of public health.

"If we are not able to meet the August 18 deadline, we (the faculty and I) will assume that implementation of the School will not be supported, and will begin making alternative arrangements," Morris wrote several days later to Chancellor William E. Kirwan.

He added: "The Dean of the School of Public Health at [Johns] Hopkins has already expressed an extremely strong interest in recruitment of our top faculty ... if this does not go through, it is highly likely that $10-$20 million in grant funds will walk out of the door within a matter of months, much of it to Hopkins."

Michael J. Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, downplayed Morris' suggestion that the Hopkins school - widely regarded as among the best in the world - would take advantage of problems at an upstart program across town.

"I'm saddened to hear that there may be problems with the establishment of the school," said Klag in an interview. "While we would certainly rather keep good scientists in Maryland than have them leave Maryland, we're not actively recruiting anybody."

On June 21, Ramsay appealed to Morris for patience, saying that while meeting his Aug. 18 deadline was "clearly impossible," the president believed that "untangling complex fiscal issues" could be worked out once the new medical school dean, E. Albert Reece, arrives on campus in September.

Morris was not assuaged. If the accreditation deadline passed, the school would have to wait a year for the two-year process to begin, he believed, imperiling the value of the degrees earned by incoming students.

Three days later, he sent the president another threat: Unless the university complied with Morris' requests, he would contact the 50 master's of public health graduate students expected in the fall and suggest they consider enrolling elsewhere.

Morris' concern was apparently shared by the majority of professors in his department.

On Monday, a petition signed by 46 of about 60 epidemiology faculty members was sent to Kirwan and Ramsay, urging the university to heed Morris' wishes.

When asked about the dispute yesterday, Kirwan and Ramsay expressed incredulity at Morris' concerns. They offered immediate assurance that all the guarantees he was insisting on would be provided.

"I'm really mystified about the sort of turmoil that appears to be happening," Ramsay said yesterday by phone from San Diego, where he was vacationing. "It's almost as if they don't really believe that we're going to form the new school."

He said he had not yet seen the petition from the epidemiology department faculty, but he chalked up their concern to naivete about how university budgets operate.

"The vast majority of faculty are pretty unsophisticated about how you actually budget and actually run a campus," he said.

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