New research procedures upset faculty

Some faculty researchers are livid with administrators over new mandatory training on fiscal responsibility and ethics.

A March 29 e-mail from Carol Sigelman, associate vice president for Research and Graduate Studies, informed faculty members that principle investigators must now take 90-minute training sessions. Principle investigators are the professors responsible for carrying out a research project and overseeing its finances.

The training program, which Sigelman administers, covers proper management of outside funding, including monitoring, spending and procuring services, and avoiding conflicts of interest.

If investigators do not attend a training session, they risk losing their privilege to continue managing GW-sponsored research projects, Sigelman warned in one of several e-mails obtained by The Hatchet.

The University is implementing stricter research policies following the arrest of former professor Nabih Bedewi in October 2004 in connection with charges of embezzling nearly $600,000 in federal funds. The funds were supposed to sponsor projects Bedewi headed at the University’s National Crash Analysis Center on the Virginia Campus. Bedewi is on trial in U.S. District Court and faces multiple counts of fraud.

Some professors responded to Sigelman’s e-mail with objections, maintaining that they were being punished for another’s mistake. The professors blamed the Bedewi scandal on a lack of administrative oversight, not a lack of faculty accountability.

“Why should it always be the faculty at large who pay for others’ misdeeds?” mathematics professor Murli Gupta said in an e-mail response to Sigelman and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman. Gupta is a member of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee.

Faculty Senate member Philip Wirtz, a management science and psychology professor, wrote in an e-mail that the new research procedures show the administration’s “disrespect for the faculty and its misguided view of what went wrong (with the Bedewi case).”

Sigelman stressed that both the administration and faculty are being held accountable for ensuring ethical research.

“It’s important that they know that both the administration and the faculty are being addressed,” Sigelman said in a phone interview. “A number of people have to do the right thing to be responsible. The big message to be communicated in this training is shared responsibility.”

In January, the administration and faculty approved a revised Conflict of Interest Disclosure Form investigators must complete to apply for outside funding. Wirtz said the revised form was a more cooperative endeavor between the two parties.

“That was vetted through the Faculty Senate,” Wirtz said in an interview. “The fact that the administration and faculty worked very collaboratively on it is a stark contrast to the Sigelman memo.”

Sigelman said not all administrative decisions need to pass through the Faculty Senate. She cited a distinction between making decisions on policies, such as the conflict of interest form, and implementing other requirements.

“There are certain things that the administration needs to implement,” she said. “Procedures, administration guidelines and training don’t all go through the Faculty Senate.”

Other mandatory training programs have been implemented in past years without this nature of dissent from faculty researchers, Sigelman said. Such training sessions include topics involving human subjects and patient care.

At the University of Southern California and a number of other research universities around the country, similar programs are in place to promote understanding of fund management and ethical guidelines for faculty researchers. USC’s Office of Compliance began requiring all principal investigators to attend a training session similar to GW’s about one year ago.

“A few grumbled in the beginning, but it was relatively innocuous,” said Randolph Hall, the senior associate dean for research at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. “The training is really about making sure people don’t make innocent mistakes, and most researchers can benefit from it.”

Sigelman presented the first training session on Monday to about 15 faculty members. She said that afterwards three or four people told her the session was useful.

Gupta and Wirtz said they plan to attend a regularly scheduled Faculty Senate meeting Friday, where they said the new mandatory training will be discussed extensively.

“Nobody’s arguing that there isn’t potentially useful information,” Wirtz said. “If it was pursued in the way that the information could be helpful to everyone, life would be very different around here right now.”

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