When the Life Sciences Institute was founded in May 1999, then-President of the University Lee Bollinger envisioned the half-billion dollar project transforming the University into one of the top schools for research in the biomedical sciences. Now, more than a year after the LSI first opened its doors, more than half of the available laboratories are empty and fierce competition nationwide has prevented the University from attracting more than a handful of researchers from other schools.

Eston Bond

The institute, part of the broader Life Sciences at Michigan program, has garnered some criticism from University faculty for the pace of recruiting new faculty to fill its recently built, cutting-edge laboratories.

“With the fantastic facilities and institutional commitment they have, (the institute) should be in better shape today,” said a senior Medical School professor and research scientist who wished to remain anonymous so he could speak freely. “What I would have liked to see is to … bring in fantastic people from other institutions. That did not materialize.”

Faculty from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the Medical School — including the anonymous source — were involved in and aware of the planning stages for the LSI.

But University and LSI administrators said recruiting is invariably a slow process, particularly at the senior faculty level. They said a gradual, methodical approach ensures the institute hires only the best and brightest.

“We’re aiming high,” LSI Director Alan Saltiel said. “We could fill this place tomorrow … but we’re really looking for the best people.”

Administrators and faculty say that after a rocky start, LSI is poised to leap ahead into a hopeful future.

“LSI continues to grow, and the faculty members of LSI continue to attract new resources for their research and supporting the staff that work with them,” Vice President of Research Fawwaz Ulaby said.

At the time of the interview with the anonymous source in October, only one senior faculty member, Prof. Janet Smith, had been recruited with tenure to the LSI from outside the University. Since then, a second senior hire has accepted a tenured position, but administrators would not release his name because his hiring is not official yet.

A total of 13 faculty members, including Saltiel, have moved into the LSI, which holds a maximum of 30 laboratory areas. Five are junior-level faculty recruited from outside the University. The six remaining members were chosen from departments within the University by LSI’s advisory committee to form a so-called “charter faculty” — a seed group of researchers to assist with recruiting and fundraising.

Exacerbating the institute’s recruiting problems, two of the charter faculty, former interim University President B. Joseph White and pathology Prof. John Lowe, plan to leave the University next year. Last month White was named president of the University of Illinois.

LSI has suffered specific, unusual setbacks that have hindered recruiting efforts, University faculty said. Changes in leadership and fierce competition for faculty nationwide have forced the institute to surmount unexpected challenges.

 

Leadership changes

Originally conceived by former University President Lee Bollinger as an interdisciplinary center that would bring together researchers from across the biomedical sciences, LSI was founded in May 1999 from University and University Hospital reserve funds. Two co-directors were named — Scott Emr, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, and Jack Dixon, a medical sciences professor at the University.

Then, in 2002, President Bollinger left to become president at Columbia University. His decision precipitated a series of departures among LSI’s leadership.

First, Emr, who had not yet moved to Ann Arbor, chose to remain in San Diego.

“My decision was based on two main issues,” Emr said in an e-mail message, “the decision of Lee Bollinger to resign as President of UM, which put my plans to move my lab to UM on hold, and … a need to protect the interests of the students and postdocs in my lab who could not easily put their lives/careers on hold while the UM began to search for a new President.”

Subsequently, in July 2002, Dixon resigned to take a faculty position at UCSD. Dixon said he chose to leave partly due to Bollinger’s departure and partly to move closer to family in the southern California area.

Prof. Rowena Matthews, a member of the institute’s charter faculty, said Bollinger, Emr and Dixon’s departures “set back the pace of recruiting.”

“Recruiting is a very personal interaction between the directors and the people you’re trying to recruit,” Matthews said. “When you have a big change in leadership, you’re really starting from square one.”

After a search for a new director, the University selected Alan Saltiel, former director of the Department of Cell Biology at Parke-Davis Pharmaceutical Division (now Pfizer Global Research) in Ann Arbor.

Fierce competition

During the leadership turnover, numerous top-level universities such as UCSD, Princeton, Harvard and Stanford started similar projects in the life sciences, steeply increasing the competition for star faculty, said pathology chair Peter Ward.

“Suddenly the competition has taken a quantum leap forward,” Ward said. “The pool of individuals who are highly sought after is extremely small, and that’s going to be the basic factor in limiting these institutions – not how much money you can invest in bricks and mortar.”

Princeton, for instance, has invested $50 million dollars in its Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, Ward said. MIT, Duke University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Missouri at Columbia are among others that have begun LSI-like institutes on their campuses.

At the University of Michigan, President Mary Sue Coleman’s arrival in 2002 helped revitalize LSI, Matthews said. Coleman, a professor of biological chemistry, brought her own scientific expertise to the table during discussions on LSI’s future. Matthews said White, who served as the University’s interim president until Coleman arrived and subsequently has served as an LSI charter faculty member, was also “enormously supportive.”

“(Coleman and White) kept this place from becoming a shell and not living up to its promise,” Matthews said.

Coleman promoted the idea of the LSI charter faculty – a group of researchers selected from within the University – to speed recruiting and fundraising efforts, Matthews added. Although establishing such a seed group of University researchers had been discussed prior to her arrival, Coleman confirmed that she specifically pushed to make the charter faculty a reality.

Like all LSI faculty, charter faculty hold joint positions in the institute and in a standard academic department.

“When you’re recruiting people from outside, you need to make sure you have lines of communication back to the departments, and I think (a charter faculty) is a good way,” Coleman said.

Charter faculty have been heavily involved in recruiting since moving into the institute this year, Matthews said. She explained that all LSI faculty members meet each potential faculty recruit to ensure that each recruit finds two or three colleagues in the institute with whom they would like to collaborate.

But the anonymous senior Medical School professor criticized the choice to create a charter faculty. “In an institution this large, everybody thinks their work is the most important,” he said. “They should have kept those egos aside and brought in new people.”

Aside from the incentive of superior lab space, he said, charter faculty gained an increase in salary on moving to the institute. LSI spokeswoman Robin Stevenson confirmed that most charter faculty received a pay increase.

The anonymous professor also said the institute should have searched more intensively outside the University for senior level stars in the biomedical sciences by looking for hidden talent as well as big names.

He claimed he is not alone among University faculty in criticizing LSI. However, of eight additional faculty members contacted by the Daily, five did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them, and three declined to be interviewed.

Chemistry Prof. David Lubman, in refusing an interview with the Daily, wrote in an e-mail, “I have had nothing to do with the LSI – even though many of my interests probably do overlap. This may tell you something about LSI already.”

Ward, however, said he felt a charter faculty is crucial to the success of the LSI. The LSI building was nearly complete when Saltiel was named director, he explained, so the new director’s influence on helping recruit faculty had not yet been felt. Without charter faculty, the building would have been empty, which he said would have disadvantaged LSI.

“It was important to get faculty in,” Ward said. “You won’t be able to do much fundraising if you don’t have four or five highly respected … starting faculty who we think are top notch.”

Some resistance to LSI, he explained, developed early on among faculty who feared the institute would take resources away from existing biomedical departments. However, he said he expects that through the joint appointment process, LSI will eventually become “a tribute to the departments” rather than a drain.

Saltiel added that criticism of the institute is unavoidable. “It’s inevitable that there will be people who think we should have spent the money another way,” he said.

 

The vista ahead

 

Overall, many faculty are optimistic about the institute’s future.

“I don’t see enormous obstacles,” Matthews said. “What I feel very strongly about is (the institute) is not only beautiful for us the faculty, but it’s a beautiful environment for our students as well. We’re able to recruit really top people – it’s really a draw.”

She said her own research has already grown in unexpected ways from new collaborations with other LSI faculty and that she thinks other researchers will form similarly successful partnerships.

Likewise, Ward said he believes the institute will enhance biomedical sciences at the University.

“I think beyond any question, ultimately the judgment will be that this was a very good initiative on Bollinger’s part,” he said.

However, he cautioned that it might take 10 or 20 years before a final assessment can be made.

“You can only speculate now what it’s going to be like down the road,” he said. “You just have to wait and watch things unfold.”

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