Civil Beat readers may have followed with disbelief Chancellor Tom Apple’s abrupt dismissal from the University of Hawaii at Manoa by President David Lassner, and the controversy that ensued.

Because it came in the wake of previous controversies around Virginia Hinshaw and MRC Greenwood’s early contract terminations, readers may have lost any remaining confidence in the ability of the University of Hawaii to manage itself. That said, what appears to be the root of UH’s dysfunctional management should not be lost in the shuffle.

The documents publicly released by Chancellor Apple expose the pervasive effect that inappropriate outside interference has on running the university. The Apple letters make clear that his firing was in great part due to the intervention of powerful outsiders who opposed his attempt, last December, to remove Dr. Michele Carbone, the director of the UH Cancer Center (UHCC).

UH Cancer Center

Former University of Hawaii at Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple says that cancer center politics led to his termination.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

At that time, a group of 10 UHCC-associated faculty who were partially protected against retaliation by their tenure status, published the following statement in support of Apple:

“Carbone, lacking any relevant administrative experience, was named as interim director in October 2008 and selected as director in August 2009 by former Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw over two very qualified candidates and against the recommendation of 87 percent of the UHCC faculty, who recognized in him an absence of the traits of a good leader.

His main task was to keep harmonious relationships with the politically powerful medical centers while developing clinical research in Hawaii, an area outside Carbone’s research expertise.

To help in this effort, he hired as a consultant, at very high compensation, Dr. Brian Issell, a former center director who was unsuccessful in building a clinical research program during his own tenure as director. After five years and spending large amounts of resources, they have not recruited any senior clinical oncologist to lead this effort.”

The statement continues: “One example of Carbone’s recklessness is his idea, presented to the Legislature, to bring Chinese pharmaceutical companies to UHCC to help with a projected budget deficit, rather than seeking additional sources of research funding that would be the natural remedy for a research institute.

Carbone’s management lacks the transparency essential in managing taxpayer dollars. We urge the UH administration to conduct independent audits of the functioning of the UHCC. We also ask for a release of an anonymous ‘360 evaluation’ of Carbone as director, executed by UH over a year ago.

The UHCC scourge has now affected the entire Manoa campus by causing, at least in part, the fall of Chancellor Apple.

Carbone is unsuited for the position of a UH research institute director. This was the conclusion of UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, who twice attempted to remove him as director. We thank Apple for his courageous attempt to rectify the toxic environment at UHCC and ask that he not be further blocked by the Board of Regents, legislators and hospital executives in fulfilling his duty. Carbone must be removed immediately to give the faculty time to rebuild a nurturing research environment and prepare for the next peer-review of our Cancer Center designation by the NCI.”

Not surprisingly, our opinion was ignored and the situation at UHCC has continued to deteriorate with additional faculty grievances filed against Carbone and an operating budget deficit of $10 million. The UHCC scourge has now affected the entire Manoa campus by causing, at least in part, the fall of Chancellor Apple.

In addition, in June, the UH Manoa administration was pressured by Carbone’s powerful backers to entrust him with leading the center for another three years toward the competitive renewal of its National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation.  The decision was made without a formal evaluation and without input from the faculty, students and staff.

Before Carbone, UHCC had been able to renew this designation multiple times over 20 years, largely because of its cohesiveness, its unique research focus on Hawaii’s multiethnic population and environment, and the strength of its population science program.

Impressively, UHCC was bringing six to eight times more grant dollars to UH than the costs of running it. Now the University claims that it had no choice but to keep Carbone because it is pressed for time.

UH further argues that it has to give him significantly more resources to renew the prestigious cancer center designation because NCI has raised its requirements. This is not accurate.

Indeed, NCI did away with its minimal requirement for Cancer Center of three competitive programs each composed of at least three NCI-funded investigators. It recently instituted the simpler requirement for applying centers to have at least $10 million in NCI grant funding, which ironically is approximately the amount of money brought in last year by the very faculty members who are ostracized by the UHCC leadership and who are awarded the majority of the Center’s extramural funding.

UH Cancer Center Director Dr. Michele Carbone.  1/14/14

Despite intense criticism, UH Cancer Center Director Dr. Michele Carbone remains in his post.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Instead of raising the bar, the competitive standing of the UHCC has dropped considerably under Carbone. It no longer even meets the “old” requirements.

Carbone’s divisive and autocratic management style has not only created a hostile work environment, but his lack of vision, his misdirected and costly initiatives, and his inability to recruit a qualified leadership team has led to a lack of scientific focus and a reduction in the metrics of research excellence used as criteria for NCI designation — the numbers of NCI funded investigators and competitive programs at the center.

This, despite the vast resources (e.g., through the cigarette-tax) and many new faculty positions that were made available to him by former Chancellor Hinshaw. Carbone has a six-year track record that speaks for itself. Why has there not been an independent evaluation of his performance?

It is commendable for UH, the Legislature and the local cancer community to want to help the Cancer Center regain its competitiveness, and all of the UHCC faculty are grateful for it.

We all agree that there is still a tremendous potential for conducting world-class cancer research in Hawaii and we, in the trenches, work very hard under difficult circumstances toward the goal of decreasing the burden posed by cancer in our islands.

However, it is completely unconscionable for UH to again entrust Carbone with the task of leading this effort. This is destined to fail. Despite the current picture, there still are options open to the center to regain its competitiveness.

One option, used by many cancer centers facing a problematic renewal, is to “stop the clock” on the renewal timeline by replacing a failing director. NCI has almost always given a two- to four-year extension following a change in center leadership.

UH has used this option in the past and would be well advised to do so now. Conducting a national search to recruit a new leader who can bring the faculty together behind a common goal and build on its recognized strengths is indeed the only viable option to save cancer research in Hawaii.

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