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Prominent USF professor says university has reneged on its research commitment to him

TAMPA — Talk about awkward.

Laurence Branch is among the most esteemed scholars at the University of South Florida and one of the few to be named a distinguished university professor.

An expert on gerontology and health policy for older people, he is one of the three USF professors whose work is most often cited in academic journals.

And as president of the faculty senate, he sits on the USF board of trustees.

But Larry Branch the trustee helps govern an administration that has treated Larry Branch the professor unfairly, he says.

"Commitments were made to me by the university and not kept," he wrote in a grievance filed last month.

Branch, 65, contends that USF reneged on commitments to support his research by:

• Not crediting his research account with $24,079 that university policy said he was eligible to receive from a grant he brought to USF.

• Not providing him $300,000 in promised research startup funds.

These issues go back to 2002, when USF hired Branch from Duke University to be dean of the College of Public Health.

In a job offer, then-vice president for health sciences Robert Daugherty said USF would commit a variety of resources "to assure your success as dean."

Among them was $300,000 "to establish targeted research areas," Daugherty wrote.

But only $100,000 was ever made available, and even that was taken back when Daugherty demoted Branch less than five months after he started.

Daugherty did not say publicly why he removed Branch as dean and did not respond to recent inquiries from the Times. Months later, Daugherty himself was forced to resign after being admonished for mixing politics with his university job.

But Daugherty's own departure did nothing to shake loose the $300,000. Branch became a tenured professor in the College of Public Health. A strained, low-key feud ensued.

In 2004, Branch sought to file a grievance but was told it was too late.

Now he has filed a grievance after receiving a letter he said smacks of coercion. In it, USF Health chief executive officer Stephen Klasko offered $24,079 to settle all of Branch's claims. The letter, Branch said, seemed to close the door to discussion.

"I wish it were still a private matter, but that strategy didn't work for seven years," he said.

USF's original job offer did not say "while you are dean you will have these monies," Branch said.

"What it does say is (the money is) to assure your success," he said. "I was not successful, but that does not relieve them of the responsibility of providing what they said they would. One might argue that by not providing what they said they would, they predetermined that I would not be successful."

Klasko said Branch is not entitled to the $300,000 because he is not dean anymore. That money wouldn't have been offered to Branch as an individual faculty member, he said.

Klasko also said he has a duty to use the public's money to build the College of Public Health, and that's what he's done.

"Since I've been here, we've gone out of our way to be fair," he said.

• • •

At stake for Branch is not only his research but his pay.

That's because a quarter of his total salary comes from whatever research grants he brings in.

As a result, USF pays Branch about $178,000 annually, making him one of the highest-paid faculty members at the university outside the College of Medicine.

But his salary could top $237,000 a year if he brought in more grants.

When Branch came to USF, he brought a National Institutes of Health grant with him. But that grant, which was to train ophthalmologists to use the latest eye research to treat patients with diabetes, has run out.

Now Branch said he cannot hire graduate students he needs to seek new grants.

"The development of a grant is very costly and requires pilot studies," he said. "Without those funds, I've been unable to do it."

In contrast, Branch said he won grants continuously from 1974 until he came to USF. Their total: nearly $11 million.

"In part, it's because there's a structure in academics that allows senior investigators to have access to developmental research funds," he said.

• • •

Until recently, this dispute played out behind the scenes.

Now that it's public, Branch said, it's frustrating and embarrassing.

"More than anything, I've prided myself on being a good academic citizen," he said. But that's hard at a place "that does not meet my standards of integrity."

"What is the lesson we are teaching our students?" he said. "That if you have the power, you don't have to honor commitments?"

USF has honored its commitment to the College of Public Health, university spokesman Michael Hoad said.

Like all faculty members, Branch has a right to pursue a grievance if he feels wronged, but his doing so doesn't make running USF any harder for administrators, Hoad said.

"The free exchange of strongly felt opinions is part of what a university is," he said. "And that's a good thing."

Prominent USF professor says university has reneged on its research commitment to him 01/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 9:31pm]
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