Scandal Reaches Critical Mass at VCU

It looks like Peter beat me to the punch on the latest developments at Virginia Commonwealth University (see “A Tale of Two Outrages.”) Rather than repeat the points he made, I want to amplify his comments about the “neo-Stalinist” atmosphere at VCU. I wouldn’t choose that particular, highly loaded adjective to describe the Trani administration — nobody’s been hauled off in the middle of the night and executed — but there is big, festering problem that must be dealt with.

By way of background: I criticized Style Weekly magazine last month in R’Biz for publishing an article that gave breathless credence to fears expressed anonymously by VCU faculty members and researchers that the administration would retaliate if they openly expressed their objections to the controversial contracts with Philip Morris USA. Style noted that “senior people” at VCU had left because of the Philip Morris controversy but did not identify them. The weekly failed to present any other evidence that the dissidents’ fears were grounded in previous VCU actions.

Well, I owe Style an apology. Peter’s subsequent reporting turned up the fact that one senior person (not “people”) at VCU — former vice president of research Marsha Torr — did depart in a controversy over Philip Morris a few years ago. And today we read in the Times-Dispatch that VCU officials made “improper threats” in an unrelated investigation into a degree improperly given then-Richmond police chief Rodney D. Monroe.

The controversy over Monroe’s degree erupted into a full-fledged uproar when two prominent VCU faculty members resigned their senior administrative positions in protest earlier this week. Robert D. Holsworth, a noted Virginia political commentator, stepped down as dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Michael D. Pratt resigned as interim director of the school of government and public affairs. As Karin Kapsidelis reports for the T-D, the VCU board will take up allegations contained in letters written by two of the four senior officials — presumably Holsworth and Pratt — that “some improper interviewing” took place during the Monroe-degree investigation.

Kapsedelis quotes Dan Ream, president of the faculty senate, as saying that there were “improper threats made to potential tenure. … You don’t threaten tenure.”

Well, if VCU officials can threaten tenured professors, non-tenured professors and research staff cannot be blamed for being skittish about expressing their concerns publicly about the Philip Morris contracts. Add to this latest development the fact that the task force assigned to study the university’s research contracts and recommend new guidelines is chaired by Francis Macrina, the vp of research whose underlings negotiated the contracts, and there is every reason for outsiders to wonder about the integrity of the process.

VCU is the state’s largest, fastest-growing university, and it’s a pillar of the Richmond economy. VCU is an engine of economic development, critical to the growth of the life sciences sector in the region. Anyone who wants to build a more prosperous, livable and sustainable Richmond region needs to take an interest in what happens at VCU.

As Peter rightly asks in the context of this dual controversy, if William & Mary alumni were outraged by the culture-war antics (my word, not his) of President Gene R. Nichol, where are Richmond’s community leaders and VCU alumni? Why aren’t they expressing outrage — or at least concern — about events at VCU that go to the heart of academic and research integrity? It’s a fair question.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Thanks for the kudos. However, what were Nichol’s “culture war antics,” exactly?
    Also, I think neo-Stalin is perfectly apt. What’s next there? The knock on the door at midnight?
    Peter Galuszka

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I worked for the university in close proximity to Trani during the first few years of his tenure, and I don’t think neo-Stalinist is fair — but it’s close. Trani certainly knows what he wants and manages his people to that end. The circles he sent people running in the early 90s to get VCU/Trani national news coverage bordered on the obscene. You can’t say Trani hasn’t done some significant things for the university, but my experience is that he didn’t have a lot of qualms about the people cost involved in acheiving his objectives.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Alumni, students, and even VCU employees are expressing concern and loudly. Check out blogs at Fan District Hub and And now on yours. I looked earlier in this scandal for your take on the matter and was unsuccessful in finding anything – I may just have missed it. Thanks for giving us a forum in which to express our views!

    It’s outrageous what’s going on at VCU. My thoughts? (1) VCU should take back Monroe’s degree right away and be prepared to face any consequences from him, (2) Anyone associated with this unfair awarding of a degree should be fired from the university – they all knowingly violated clearly stated university policy – it matters not why they did it – ignorance is no excuse and pressure is no excuse. (3) the BOV should not worry about coercive tactics to get the truth out of these corrupt people – tenure is not a right but a privilege – you don’t cooperate to the satisfaction of the investigators and the BOV, you’re fired. Pack up your crap and get out and get off the public payroll.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    For both scandals, the underlying principle is the same: make a special exception for someone special (police chief, favored tobacco company) and then try to pretend nothing unusual happened (lots of people get credit waivers, lots of universities include these restrictions) & blame the messenger (Harry Potter, NYT) when the bad behavior is uncovered.

    The corporate research task force won't find any problems with the existing guidelines for negotiating industry contracts: the problem is with the one agreement at the center of the controversy that is being ignored. And, surprise, the person responsible for this unethical agreement is the one heading the review.

    Similarly, it seems the BoV, having felt they brought closure to the Monroe case with their "appropriate personnel actions", planned to redirect public attention on an investigation of university degree-awarding practices as evidence of how concerned they were. However, the recent resignations and letters of protest exposed their egregious behavior, which rivals the improperly awarded degree itself.

    We now learn that an auditor used threats to obtain cooperation, and that a very quiet provost apparently "apologized". First, why would he apologize unless he were somehow involved in the activity that resulted in the threat? Second, an apology is enough to make things right in this situation?

    It is distressing too that the faculty senate president does not indicate more outrage or intent to hold university leadership accountable. Being "pleased" that the provost thought a bald threat was "unacceptable" seems a bit meek with so much at stake. In May, "Dr. Trani recommended Mr. Dan Ream be appointed as the non-voting Faculty Representative to the Board of Visitors." Pretty heady invitation for a librarian. He was also invited to serve on the industry research task force and is content with how that group is proceeding as well. Perhaps being asked to join the club has changed his perspective a bit.

    How on earth can Rosenthal think that "the university has weathered its recent controversies "quite well" and will emerge with an enhanced reputation"? Or characterize the situation as "unfortunate"?

    Unfortunate? Neither scandal is the result of ill fortune but of self-serving actions taken at the expense of the University and the Commonwealth it is charged to serve.

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