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For some, Rao's departure a happy ending in USF bike scandal

TAMPA — Long before any $100 bicycle or grainy YouTube video, Dr. Abdul Rao was a lightning rod for tension and unhappiness at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine.

He was a $384,280-a-year head of research at an institution yearning to burnish its research bona fides.

Yet a faculty survey shows that fewer than half of the 138 respondents thought Rao furthered that goal. Only one professor in four thought he welcomed their input.

"What a sad day for USF...'' one professor's wife wrote last month to USF officials, after Rao was forced to resign amid allegations that he stole a bike.

"However, one would not know it by the high-fives and grins from ear to ear at the Medical school! To say that Dr. Rao was disliked would be a huge understatement.''

It's not surprising that disharmony marked Rao's three-year tenure. Medical schools typically abound with strong-willed personalities, and USF's is no different.

Some faculty bristled that Rao instituted changes and divvied out money when he never personally led a research study for the National Institutes for Health, medical academia's gold standard.

And certainly Florida's abysmal economy fueled unhappiness with budget cuts and pay freezes.

But none of that explains Rao's considerable unpopularity with the faculty, his critics say. They describe a personality that could be smooth and charming one moment, then high-handed and do-it-my-way the next.

Internal medicine and pediatrics professor Barbara Hansen said Rao undercut research possibilities by shipping away special monkeys she and others use for diabetes and obesity studies.

Richard Heller, a highly regarded professor in molecular medicine and chemical engineering, says he left USF for Old Dominion in large part because of Rao.

"It was getting very depressing,'' Heller said. "You can't treat (faculty) like they don't know anything. And you can't berate them over and over.''

Rao, 51, now faces possible petty theft charges, the result of a bizarre incident in which USF security cameras caught him taking a graduate student's bike from a university loading dock, which he says was a misunderstanding.

Through his attorney, Stephen Romine, Rao acknowledged that a vocal block of professors were unhappy. He was hired to beef up productivity and make other cultural changes and that ruffled feathers.

Romine said Rao put it this way: "It was not popular with many of faculty members, but that's the job I was given.''

Patricia Haynie, vice president for strategic planning, analysis and operations, said Rao was always helpful to her and could explain complex issues in ways that lawmakers could understand.

"I don't believe anyone would ever question his intelligence or his willingness to work,'" Haynie said.

One survey respondent who gave Rao low marks was molecular biology professor Gene Ness. He reiterated those feelings in a letter to USF president Judy Genshaft after Rao resigned.

"Dr. Rao has totally destroyed morale'' at the College of Medicine, Ness wrote. "His rapid departure will very much improve USF.''

• • •

Abdul Rao came to USF in January 2005 amid fanfare and high expectations.

Rao was a "pioneer in translating basic science research to solve clinical problems,'' a USF release said. He had degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Boston universities.

He had conducted immunology research at Pittsburgh's prestigious Thomas Starzl Transplantation Institute. He had cut his administrative teeth at Drexel University in Philadelphia before moving on to Middle Tennessee State University to run its research and graduate studies programs.

MTSU has no medical school and is known mostly for teaching, not research, said provost Kaylene Gebert.

Rao was a sterling addition.

For 18 months, he tutored faculty on how to compete for federal funding. He and his wife served Indian and Pakistani food at faculty cookouts at their home.

"Abdul was a man of enormous energy,'' Gebert said. "He showed us that we could be better than we realized.''

Rao was brought to USF by College of Health dean Stephen Klasko, who had worked with Rao at Drexel.

As the College of Medicine's vice dean of research and graduate studies, Rao would serve as Klasko's point man, handing out money, organizing departments, hiring and firing.

But USF was not the teaching-oriented Middle Tennessee State. Here, he would deal with proven "rainmakers'' — professors with strong egos and substantial medical research credentials.

Many were principal investigators on lucrative NIH grants that brought millions of dollars to USF. Rao's only NIH grants were for upgrading Drexel's animal labs and training minority students.

Though Rao's resume ran to 63 pages, his medical degree was from Dow University in Pakistan. He is a U.S. citizen, but never gained certification here to practice as a physician. He hasn't been listed as primary author on a journal publication for a decade, according to his resume.

"There was probably resentment by people who had (NIH) grants being told what to do by people who hadn't gotten their own,'' said Bernd Sokolowski, professor of otolaryngology, molecular pharmacology and physiology.

Under Klasko's direction, Rao instituted an unpopular system of quantifying faculty productivity. How many grants did they bring in? How many students did they teach? How many papers did they publish?

"A group of faculty was extremely resistant to change,'' said Rao's attorney. "They were very vocal about it.''

Once, Sokolowski said, Rao joked that he might go out to the parking lot and find his tires slashed.

• • •

Before she came to USF four years ago, Hansen, the internal medicine and pediatrics professor, headed research and graduate studies at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, just like Rao later did at USF. She has secured millions of NIH research dollars over the years.

Hansen specializes in diabetes and obesity, often using for research a colony of naturally obese rhesus monkeys she maintained for 35 years.

When USF recruited her, Hansen said, her contract specified that some of the money the College of Medicine would earn from a National Institute on Aging grant would help cover the cost of daily monkey care.

She paid for food, bedding, and assistants who clean cages and take vital signs in an off-campus lab, Hansen said. Yet Rao presented her with a bill for the "university's costs:" $4.50 per day, per monkey.

"I requested details for what it was for and he only demanded that it be paid,'' Hansen said. "He would not detail it and it does not have NIA approval. Meanwhile, my staff continues to take care of the monkeys.''

In his e-mail, Rao said the per diem charge for Hansen's monkeys was calculated by the university's comparative medicine division, not his office. It is in line with national trends, he said.

About 60 members of the 100-monkey colony were not covered by the NIA grant, Hansen said. They became USF property when she transferred from Maryland. Though she and other USF researchers wanted to use them for diabetes studies, she said, Rao shipped them off to other universities.

"If Rao had been here when USF recruited me,'' Hansen said, "I would not have come.''

Don Cameron, professor of pathology and cell biology, said Rao belittled him and a diabetes research proposal involving Hansen's monkeys in front of an audience that included a potential donor, who then closed his wallet.

"Your overt disparagement of our project in development, without a considered evaluation of its merits, breached the border of professional courtesy,'' Cameron wrote to Rao, with a copy to Klasko.

Speaking through his attorney, Rao denied belittling Cameron's proposal. He just thought the scale of the experiment and its funding was too small to yield significant scientific results.

One of Rao's early charges from Klasko was to merge six basic science departments into three. Those three department heads would then report to Rao, while the clinical departments would continue to report directly to Klasko.

"That made the chairs of the basic science departments second-class citizens,'' said professor Ness.

Rao said he held dozens of meetings with faculty, students and staff before the merger, sometimes with standing room audiences. The goal, he said, was to "initiate dialogue.''

Ness said the faculty had little true input.

Rao "totally ignored the advice of faculty,'' Ness said. "The fact is that he dictated to us. That was the biggest problem.''

Ness and others said they complained to Klasko about Rao without any apparent change.

Ness said he told Klasko last June "that a cancer was growing on the deanship. On the Friday after the bicycle episode, I told him the cancer has metasticized.''

•••

Klasko, the dean who brought Rao to USF, has declined to comment for this story. The university has sent Rao a $34,000 check as part of a settlement agreement that forbids him or the university from suing or disparaging the other party.

Even Rao's detractors acknowledge he made some progress during trying times.

He recruited new faculty who have gained the respect of their colleagues. He helped set up "core facilities,'' where scientists could share supplies and expensive instruments.

"His agenda was trying to build research,'' said Kenneth Ugen, professor of medical microbiology, "but he did it in a way that was very confrontational.''

No tires got slashed, but Rao clearly made enemies.

"If you would have thought something would bring him down,'' Ugen said, "you wouldn't have thought it would be a $100 bicycle.''

USF dean Abdul Rao and

Victor Waiters caught on video

"Dr. Rao has totally destroyed morale in the COM. ... We have lost faculty. ... Our NIH dollars in COM have declined. ... He is always twisting the truth. His rapid departure will very much improve USF."

USF professor Gene Ness,

in an e-mail to Judy Genshaft, the school's president

For some, Rao's departure a happy ending in USF bike scandal 03/07/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 3:30pm]

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