From the Daily: Blowing the whistle on misconduct

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published May 31, 2010

The University has set a new standard for public embarrassments. After blowing the whistle on alleged misconduct by fellow University faculty, an assistant research professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases, Dr. Andrei Borisov, was forced to resign following a string of inappropriate actions and outright bullying by other faculty members and University administrators. But Borisov’s case is just one symptom of a more systemic problem at the University — an atmosphere that discourages and often punishes openness and transparency. The University must purge itself of an environment that forces faculty members to choose between academic integrity and their career.

Last month, separate reports by the Faculty Hearing Committee of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and the University of Michigan Chapter of the American Association of University Professors were released detailing faculty and staff misconduct in the case involving Dr. Andrei Borisov. According to both reports, on September 4, 2008, Borisov went to the office of the chair of his department, Dr. Valerie Castle in order to resign effective September 12, when he planned to start a new job in the Department of Internal Medicine. Upon arrival, he was met by both Castle and two Department of Public Safety officers. Castle told Borisov that he had to either sign a resignation letter effective that day or his employment would be terminated. After convincing Castle to change the effective date to September 12, Borisov signed the letter.

Nonetheless, when Borisov was escorted by DPS to his office to gather his belongings, he was read a trespass order, arrested for assaulting a police officer and disturbing the peace — the latter two were both later dismissed — and ordered to have no contact with anyone within the medical school. He was later taken to the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital emergency room for injuries to his wrist, where he told doctors that the damage was done by DPS officers. This incident followed complaints from Borisov to his superiors of plagiarism and misconduct starting as early as 2006. Borisov filed a lawsuit against the University in 2009, which is currently pending in Washtenaw County Circuit Court.

On the surface of this episode are clearly inappropriate actions by DPS. According to a recording of the September 4 meeting, one officer told Borisov, “Whether you want to sign it or not, we’re going to remove your stuff, you’re going to be read the trespass statute.” Not only did DPS read a trespass order to a clearly non-threatening, employed member of the University faculty (his resignation wasn’t effective until September 12), but the recording also shows that Borisov was going to be accused of trespassing regardless of his actions. DPS never investigated Castle’s complaint that Borisov was “physically threatening” — neither before nor after the incident. Instead, the officers acted as Castle’s personal henchmen and blindly took her word as truth. DPS’s involvement in this internal dispute was not only inappropriate, but also a fundamental betrayal of its primary objective to protect the entire campus community, not solely administrators.

But, at its heart, the problem isn’t with DPS. It’s with the treatment of Borisov by his superiors — in particular, Dr. Valerie Castle. In June, Castle began forwarding negative reviews of Borisov to his would-be employers in Internal Medicine, who would have almost certainly revoked their employment offer then had Borisov not successfully convinced them of his innocence. A few months later, rather than accepting Borisov’s resignation effective September 12, she insisted his resignation be effective immediately, which would allow DPS officers to read him a trespass warning as an unemployed, ex-faculty member. When Borisov refused, Castle allowed him to resign effective September 12, yet DPS officers read him a trespass warning and arrested him anyway. She facilitated a situation in which the only possible outcome was a trespass order and altercation. Since an arrest by DPS can bar a faculty member from being rehired by another department at the University, Castle’s actions effectively destroyed both Borisov’s reputation and career. This episode disturbingly suggests a deliberate effort to tarnish Borisov’s standing in the academic community.

In light of all of the mistakes and misconduct involved in this incident, it’s clear that the broader environment at the University is one that discourages openness and chokes academic freedom. Starting in 2006, Borisov complained to at least seven different administrators at the department, school and University level, and a letter was even sent to President Mary Sue Coleman by Dr. Douglas Smith (a former faculty member of the Medical School) regarding the case. University policy SPG 303.03 stipulates that “it is the shared responsibility of all members of our academic community to assure that misconduct in academic endeavors is dealt with in a timely and effective manner,” and it irrefutably commands that an inquiry be started whenever allegations arise.

And yet not a single serious effort was made to investigate. Each administrator deferred responsibility to another, and some even took deliberate action to retaliate against Borisov. Moreover, the fact that Borisov felt the need to tape record his conversations with faculty and administrators further implies that his concerns were being ignored, or, at least, not being taken earnestly. Even worse, when the Faculty Hearing Committee did the University’s job for them by conducting an investigation, the administrators involved blatantly refused to testify. In a letter to SACUA, Provost Teresa Sullivan hypocritically argued that the report produced was one-sided and successfully pressured the body to reject the report. Not only was University policy ignored, but an atmosphere of secrecy, mistrust and ethical bankruptcy was cultivated on the backs of faculty members that dared to speak up.

Whether or not Borisov’s allegations of plagiarism and misconduct against his colleagues are true, the University mishandled his case at every step. Administrators must treat this issue with the grave seriousness it deserves and make the sweeping reforms necessary to ensure that a career is not the price to pay for having the courage to report wrongdoing.