UVa’s $30 Million Raid on Tech’s Biocomplexity Initiative

Superstar faculty member Chris Barrett has leaped from Virginia Tech to UVa. Barrett is a global leader in applying computer science concepts and tools to make new discoveries in complex social systems.

The University of Virginia offered a biocomplexity research professor a 15% pay raise — to $450,000 — plus a rich set of fringe benefits to recruit him from Virginia Tech, according to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by the Roanoke Times.

Chris Barrett, who was promised $30 million in startup funds, left his job as executive director of the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech to become the executive director of the Biocomplexity Initiative at UVa. He has persuaded at least seven of his Virginia Tech colleagues to join him in the move from Tech’s Arlington facility to UVa’s Fairfax health center at the Inova Bioinformatics campus.

Reports the Roanoke Times:

Barrett’s offer letter included a number of personal perks, including a $15,000 lump sum for moving expenses and temporary housing, a computer and cell phone, lab and office space including interim space, high performing computer resources and discretionary funds including a long-term rental car for use to travel to and from the Washington D.C., metro area and 10-15 business class trips worth up to $75,000 for the first year of his employment.

Perks were also guaranteed for other employees wishing to join Barrett. … Employees wishing to work for the initiative and Barrett could also be offered $15,000 for moving expenses and an allowance for temporary housing and “accelerated recruitment offer letters with appropriate faculty appointments and rank.”

Last week the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved drawing $30 million from the university’s billion-dollar Strategic Investment Fund to fund the package.

Outwardly, Virginia Tech has displayed no sign of animosity toward UVa. According to the Roanoke Times: “UVa’s Executive Vice President and Provost Tom Katsouleas told The Daily Progress that he was working with Tech interim Provost Cyril Clarke to navigate the situation. Tech president Tim Sands said in the first week of new UVa President Jim Ryan’s tenure he called the new president to discuss the impending changes at the two universities.”

Bacon’s bottom line: There are at least two prisms through which to view this $30 million deal: (1) the impact on Virginia university efforts to build their R&D programs, and (2) the impact on the cost of attendance at the University of Virginia.

The recruitment of Barrett and other Tech professors undoubtedly represents a coup for UVa. Press reports do not say how much Barrett and his associates generate in research funding, but it must be a substantial sum to warrant a $30 million UVa investment. At the same time, the deal delivers a significant blow to Virginia Tech’s Biocomplexity Institute lab whose 50 tenure-track professors pulled in $103 million in award grants in the first six months of the last fiscal year. Viewed from the perspective of Virginia’s higher-education system, the deal does nothing to enhance the state’s R&D standing: UVa spent $30 million to shuffle Barrett and his research team from one Virginia research institution to another.

Legislators undoubtedly will be asking themselves, does it make sense for Virginia’s leading research institutions to poach superstar faculty from one another? If a Virginia university is going to spend $30 million to recruit a big name, shouldn’t it aim to bring in someone from outside the state?

The transaction also provides insight in how much it costs to play in the R&D big leagues. The annual cost of attendance at the University of Virginia is about $30,000.  For what it cost to recruit Barrett and his team, UVa could have offset the full tuition, fees, room, board and other expenses for 1,000 students for a year. (Or, if UVa had put the money into a scholarship endowment, it could pay total expenses for 50 students pretty much forever.)

The Board of Visitors can argue that undergraduate students won’t pay a dime toward the recruitment package, which is being financed by the Strategic Investment Fund — a superfund cobbled together from various working capital sources and reserves and invested at a higher rate of return than was achievable previously. But money is fungible. The Visitors just as easily could have devoted the money toward lower tuition & fees or increased financial aid. Alternatively, if advancing UVa’s institutional prestige was the foremost consideration, they could have used the funds to supplement salaries of humanities and social science professors. A $50,000 salary supplement goes a long way to hiring a nationally renowned professor of history or English.

It will be interesting to see what kind of Return on Investment UVa expects from its $30 million outlay. How much outside grant money will Barrett be able to bring to the university?

From a statewide higher-ed system perspective, the question is this: How much more grant money will Barrett bring in as a result of his new association with UVa and Inova than he would have generated as a Virginia Tech professor? Legislators should dig for answers.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

9 responses to “UVa’s $30 Million Raid on Tech’s Biocomplexity Initiative

  1. In the economic development arena there are rules….County A gets no support from the state, no incentive money, for getting jobs to move from another Virginia location. This kind of poaching between Virginia schools is also counterproductive and should be discouraged, not applauded. But if you don’t think somehow the cost of this will find its way onto taxpayers or tuition payers, you need to go back to Econ 101. This is a marvelous example of what is going wrong in higher ed.

    Uh, if these researchers come up with some billion dollar breakthrough, what percent of that huge profit (well earned I’m sure) goes to a) the school to return the subsidy with a bonus and b) the taxpayers who have a right to share? HMMM?

    Good story, Roanoke Times.

  2. re: ” This kind of poaching between Virginia schools is also counterproductive and should be discouraged, not applauded. ”

    We keep discussing these issues as if Virginia was the only state on the planet! It’s a bigger game than that! What goes on in Virginia may well
    not STAY in Virginia!

    re: ” The Visitors just as easily could have devoted the money toward lower tuition & fees or increased financial aid. Alternatively, if advancing UVa’s institutional prestige was the foremost consideration, they could have used the funds to supplement salaries of humanities and social science professors. A $50,000 salary supplement goes a long way to hiring a nationally renowned professor of history or English.”

    Except that was never the purpose of that fund to start with… and continuing to make the argument that it should have been or that a
    different BOV would have done something different just flies in the face
    of the reality – which is – is no small part – does any other University do that – i.e. take money earned from sources other than tuition and state aid – like Alumni and R&D funding and use it to lower the price of tuition?

    I just don’t think it’s realistic to look at a fund that was explicitly created for the specific purpose it was – and covert it into something else like a subsidy for tuition or financial aid. How many Universities actually do that?

    Is this something that Virginia is different from other Universities in the country? If so – I might agree.. But if this is the norm for most Universities in most states.. then we have an wider spread challenge to how Universities in general, operate.

    I do NOT favor R/D money going to pay for tuition AND I’d ALSO be strongly opposed to tuition money going to pay for R&D… but recognize that some R&D can and should pay for some students moving into those fields.

    Higher Ed R&D is a golden goose of economic development – a vital asset to Virginia. Do we really want to screw it up? Or perhaps a better question is – how can we empower it further and not do things to screw it up.

    So.. yes there is competition for personnel and yes we may pay them more than some think they should receive.. and I have no doubt we probably go over the line but do I want citizens running the show? NOPE! Let’s me further explain N-O-P-E. I prefer to let the Universities run that show rather than those who often have specific ideological agenda’s.

  3. So this guy and his retinue could have possibly decamped to Duke or somewhere like that. So there is that to consider. This type of stuff goes on all the time, and it is a big money business, all to get big money research contracts. Oddly enough, it is the getting the research contract, rather than the up-front seed money, is where the impact to undergraduates comes in. The contracts often do not fully fund costs, and the institution is expected to fund about 30%. Many funds are restricted as to purpose, so the general fund (e.g. tuition and appropriations) can be the ultimate source. So the size of the university enterprise and potentially prestige will grow as research grows, but it often necessitates a cross-subsidization to accomplish it.

    Like Larry, I wouldn’t expect the University to use the Strategic Investment Fund for something like tuition reduction. Rice University and Washington and Lee University were among the few universities that used general endowments to keep tuition down, and both abandoned it long ago. Universities want to do targeted things (merit scholarships, hire star researchers) that improve their standing.

    My concern, again, with the SIF is the bulk of the seed money for it almost certainly accrued in the tax-exempt medical division. I am sure what the University did to create it is legally permissible, but they certainly wanted to be as opaque as possible about sources and percentages. (A footnote in the presentation to the General Assembly mentioned patient fees as a source without giving a percentage or scale). I think the government should move to be more explicit with the requirements for tax-exempt status of hospitals. The legislative intent for doing that was to advance healthcare and community health, and a fund used at the discretion of the administration and board is getting pretty far from that intent.

    • Izzo, you are on target as usual. And if UVA thought they could make public what they do with all these public monies, and get away with it, they would.

      But since these transactions are little more than that the theft of public monies by individuals within public institutions, they hide the theft. The cure is simple. Fully transparency, as to risk, reward, and performance.

      In addition, I believe the state must guarantee Virginia taxpayers and students that state tuition payments go directly to the cost of educating the students who pay that tuition, and to do not got to subsidize other peoples business ventures. And that individuals within these institutions of higher learning who violate this pledge should face criminal penalties, just like any crook or thief would for fraud. Because that it what it is – fraud.

  4. More information needed: is this “biocomplexity institute” part of the UVa medical complex or part of the regular graduate school r&d complex? How about at VT: where does it fit in? I tend to think of things happening within the medical arena as part of a relatively independent, self-contained unit, but this sounds like it’s not within the medical business subsidiary.

    • If it is $30 million paid out of the Strategic Investment Fund I should think it walks and talks like a duck and hence is a venture capital play that has little to do with educating kids and a lot to do with a very large and speculative business investment to benefit a relative few people, earn them possibly a great deal of money at public expense, just as we have been predicting here for many years at Bacon’s Rebellion.

      See: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/sullivans-risky-bet-on-stem/

      • Another smelly fact here is that another Virginia research University, who made a big bet on these people (who just sold themselves again to UVA), now has suffered a very substantial loss at taxpayer and student expense.

        So the state here, the Virginia taxpayer, and the UVA students paying tuition, all of whose are really in fact aer funding this private business venture, are getting the shaft either way, no matter the result.

        Where are the politician tasked to protect the taxpayers and students? Where is transparency? How long will Virginia fail to come clean with the truth of these provate business transactions disguised as public education of kids.

        This stinks to high heaven.

  5. So what are the deliverables and what happens to Professor Barrett if he misses his goals? There’s nothing wrong with paying a superstar very well and providing other goodies. But when there are tax dollars involved, there is a public interest in disclosing the targets, the measurements and the results. And there needs to be penalties for failure because with great reward comes great risk.

    It’s important to have room for failure in most areas. We often learn by our mistakes. But most of the learning occurs with people who aren’t paid superstar compensation. When you get to the top (say a real brain surgeon), you damn well better not fail. Top level positions, be they in management or individual contribution, must be like the NFL – Not For Long (for anyone who doesn’t provide stellar performance consistently).

  6. To get a better sense of the enormous damage done Virginia Tech in this transaction see The Roanoke Times Aug. 9, 2018 article titled “Sands Shoulders blame for Biocomplexity directors exit, hopes to move institute forward.”

    This article was written before the full disclosure of the cost and loss suffered by Virginia Tech by reason of this taking by UVA of a critical investment by Virginia Tech for it future, and those who fund Virginia Tech, and rely upon that public institution.

    Question – Does this sort of cannibalism within the public higher education ecology system of Virginia serve, or does it grievously wound and damage, the efficiency and duplicate costs of public state research and learning, harming the state, its taxpayers, and students, and to state public institutions involved, whether stakeholders of UVa., Virginia Tech, or otherwise?

    And why is this going on in secret, and without public disclosure and state supervision and the state’s prior approval?

Leave a Reply