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The Gold and Black

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As the president of the Virginia Commonwealth University faculty senate I have been asked this summer by friends and strangers alike, “What the hell is going on down at VCU?” and “What does the VCU faculty think about all this?”


Given all the controversy that has surrounded VCU in the news since May about research agreements with Philip Morris and the Rodney Monroe degree snafu, these are difficult questions.
Representing what the faculty thinks is impossible, and yet it's my job. In the last academic year, VCU had 1,888 full-time instructional faculty members, another 536 administrative and professional faculty (such as librarians and clinical researchers) and another 1,101 part-time adjunct faculty. Thus, almost any answer I give about what the faculty thinks is sure to be considered wrong by as many. Given that, I'll try to describe what many faculty members at VCU have expressed to me about the summer of challenges.


To be honest, some have no interest whatsoever in the Philip Morris or Rodney Monroe controversies — their passion is their teaching, their research and sharing the process of discovery with their students. As long as VCU developments have not impaired their ability to teach well or do quality research, many professors are not particularly provoked. Given a heavy teaching load and the need to do research, writing and community service to succeed in their jobs, many VCU faculty noses are too close to the grindstone to engage in the more distant political dramas.
Of the recent controversies, the Philip Morris research agreements controversy has probably engendered the wider faculty interest because of its potential to affect their work. The controversy is in fact multifaceted.


The report in The New York Times May 22 centered on VCU agreeing to do research for Philip Morris in secrecy and giving the tobacco company the right to suppress results of that research. My first concern about suppressed faculty research was alleviated by learning that every faculty member who chooses to contract with Philip Morris has done so with a clear understanding of the review requirements Philip Morris imposes. They were always free to say no to such contracts, as VCU has never forced or pressured faculty to work with Philip Morris or any other private corporation. Review of research results by corporate sponsors is fairly standard — not just by Philip Morris. It enables the corporate sponsor to patent any discoveries the funding has paid for before it's published by the faculty researcher.


VCU's task force on corporate-sponsored research, on which I serve, has spent the summer reviewing how research agreements are regulated at other universities and is working to find the best model for VCU. The task force will present its findings to President Eugene Trani Oct. 1. VCU's vice president for research, Frank Macrina, has publicly acknowledged that the university's contracts with Philip Morris included secrecy clauses beyond what should have been allowed.


There are other ethical issues to be considered, of course: Should VCU have any involvement whatsoever with the tobacco industry? What about other industries that some regard as evil? Should faculty be prohibited from agreeing to work with a specific industry because of the products of that industry? What restrictions requested by industry sponsors should VCU faculty be allowed to agree to?


VCU needs to work out these answers and our faculty will undoubtedly be of divided opinion. While some insist that tobacco funding must be refused, others will insist that academic freedom should allow them to collaborate with any partner they choose, assuming a financial or other conflict of interest is not involved.


The controversy concerning Rodney Monroe's degree has been much more difficult for VCU faculty to grasp because it's shrouded in mystery and personnel confidentiality issues. Few know what really happened. The faculty members and administrators involved are intelligent, respected people within the VCU community. Most would say the same about the members of the VCU Board of Visitors overseeing the investigation. Obviously, mistakes were made, but exactly what happened may never be publicly known.
Trani's earlier-than-expected retirement announcement has also caused mixed reactions. Trani's faculty fans point to VCU's amazing transformation into the largest university in the state and a powerful force in the political and economic dynamics of Richmond. Trani's faculty critics cite too much attention to buildings and growth and too little attention to teaching loads, overcrowded classrooms, under-funded libraries and the quality of the classroom experience.


Last week, Trani expressed regret that some feel “there is an air of fear and intimidation at VCU. That's not the VCU I know.” Faculty members know many different experiences at VCU. Some say they've experienced this atmosphere of intimidation, while many do not. I fall into the latter camp and agreed to accept the faculty senate presidency in 2007. As an administrative and professional faculty member, a librarian, I accepted the position without the protections of tenure.


Trani is a forceful presence with strong opinions — qualities that have served him well as president. Yet I have no fear that he will punish me for disagreeing with him, as we both are working for the betterment of VCU. While I do not always agree with the choices made by top-tier administrators, I've learned to respect them and I know they welcome faculty viewpoints.
I suspect that the fear or intimidation felt by some faculty may be coming from some midlevel administrators. As is probably common at large universities, some longtime faculty members at VCU have never met Trani. Relatively few of our 3,000 faculty members have had one-on-one conversations with the president, the provost or the administrators at VCU as I frequently do in representing the faculty senate.


Unfortunately, such personal distance from leadership, as experienced by some, can lead to fear. Deans or administrators might be tempted to defer blame for an onerous teaching load or lack of research facilities to those above them in the chain of command. Sometimes that blaming up may be justified and sometimes not.


Passionate about their teaching and research, many recognize and respect Trani's passion for growing VCU to where it is today. It's been satisfying to see the growth of VCU pride during the Trani era. And once he returns to teaching in 2009, I wonder if we might get him to join the faculty senate? He certainly knows how to get things done. S

Dan Ream is an associate professor for VCU Libraries and president of the VCU faculty senate from 2007 to 2009.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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