The University of Hawaii at Manoa and two of its faculty members squared off before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board on Thursday in a case that could have implications for the university’s reputation and its ability to attract high-quality faculty.

The case primarily involves biology professor Kevin Bennett, an award-winning researcher from Arizona State University whom the university recruited a little over three years ago to create a magnetic resonance imaging center at UH.

An MRI expert with a doctorate in biophysics whose work in medical and molecular imaging is well regarded in academia, Bennett accepted an offer that included a $450,000 lab startup package and a commitment to purchase a specialized MRI machine.

A University of Hawaii biology student works in a lab on the Manoa campus.

A University of Hawaii biology student works in a lab on the Manoa campus.

University of Hawaii

Though Bennett worked to get the MRI center up and running, he said he ran into roadblocks at Manoa with a facilities office that took more than a year to identify space for the new research operation. The university ordered the MRI, but by the time officials identified space to house it, the machine’s manufacturer had ceased production, forcing Bennett to identify an alternate choice.

By late last summer, Bennett and UH agreed on a new choice and were ready to move forward. But the newly appointed interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences, Kristin Kumashiro, cancelled the initiative, and allocated its funding to other college projects.

“The cancellation of the MRI project … constitutes a catastrophic impact on Bennett’s career, through loss of promised and prospective research opportunities at the core of why he was recruited and chose UH and loss of likely and prospective grants from government and foundations,” reads the complaint.

Kevin Bennett, associate professor of Biology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa

Kevin Bennett, associate professor of Biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

It goes on to detail negative impacts on graduate students, more than 20 other research faculty members around the university and research studies that can’t go forward without the center.

A university lawyer argued Thursday that UH met its obligations to Bennett and that the dean was within her managerial rights to cancel the project.

“A probationary letter of hire cannot possibly bind an employer to a never-ending commitment,” UH attorney Sara Kirakami told board members in a session that is considered preliminary to a formal hearing.

Such letters expire after a faculty member earns tenure, and Bennett earned his just one year after starting work at UH. Such an achievement is typically a sign of outstanding work, and Kirakami affirmed Thursday that UH had no quarrel with Bennett’s performance.

But she also claimed the college can no longer afford to purchase the machine and isn’t obligated to honor the terms of a hire letter that prompted Bennett to relocate both himself and his family to Honolulu.

“Our position is that the letter of hire is no longer effective,” she said.

Promises Made, Later Broken

Though they are not part of the collective bargaining agreement under which UH faculty members work, hire letters are common in academia. An attorney at the HLRB session representing the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly said the university has created more than 16,000 such documents over the years, spelling out key salary terms, faculty rank and other conditions specific to faculty members’ employment.

As research universities have grown larger and the bulk of the nation’s research and development work has shifted from private industry to academia, such hire letters have increasingly come to include startup packages that for accomplished faculty can be significant. A 2015 study of biomedical research programs found, for instance, that the median startup package for a male scientist was $889,000 (the study was investigating gender equity in such packages).

Those packages often include specialized equipment, support for graduate assistants and other elements important to not only the faculty member’s current research but ability to support future, perhaps more complex work.

Top research universities such as UH, which took in $425 million in 2014-15 in research contracts and grants, seek to put competitive offers on the table to attract top faculty, knowing that major federal grant money and participation in leading scientific initiatives can follow.

Two of Bennett’s projects that were temporarily held up by the MRI decision involved scientists at the University of Virginia and Arizona State University — both top-tier research institutions. He’s currently at work on multiple projects, one of which is supported by the National Institutes of Health. They include studies on hypertension and kidney research and a kidney disease model he’s developing in mice.

Kristin Kumashiro, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Hawaii—Manoa and a professor of chemistry

Kristin Kumashiro, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UH Manoa, and a professor of chemistry.

Successful research programs not only are critical to building institutional standing within the academic and scientific communities, they are key to attracting top graduate students and often essential to earning support from private donors.

Despite its oversized impact, the research community clusters around relatively small academic disciplines, each with its own grapevine. News of issues such as UH’s unwillingness to live up to the terms of Bennett’s hire letter can travel fast and be particularly damaging to an institution’s reputation.

“When we apply for grants, we all know each other, we’re all colleagues. So these kinds of things are known very quickly,” Bennett told Civil Beat. “When people are coming here to look at a position, they look at and hear about things.”

When Kumashiro, who did not respond to a Civil Beat request to talk about the case, pulled the plug on Bennett’s project, the MRI center wasn’t the only casualty, according to the complaint.

Biology Department Chair Kathleen Cole, who defended Bennett’s position, was stripped of her position and denied research support the university had promised her in the amount of $100,000 a year as long as she served as chair.

The UHPA complaint filed on behalf of Bennett and Cole noted that Cole had been renewed as department chair shortly before Kumashiro was named interim dean in August 2015. Cole advocated for Bennett in meetings with Kumashiro and for the Biology Department in planning meetings for a new building.

In late September, Kumashiro removed Cole as chair. After the hearing Thursday, Cole remained adamant in her defense of Bennett.

“It’s beyond understanding how a university can state that letters of hire are not binding contracts,” she said.

Kathleen Cole, associate professor of Biology at the University of Hawaii—Manoa

Kathleen Cole, associate professor of Biology at UH Manoa.

Attorney Tony Gill, representing UHPA, went a step further.

“You can’t just savage employees because you have a management right,” he said. “The mere fact that a choice is management’s doesn’t get you off the hook. … There are consequences.”

The university argued that Cole’s ouster was unrelated to the MRI issue, that Kumashiro was dissatisfied with her performance and simply felt the department “needed a better chair.” UHPA called the action a violation of the collective bargaining agreement and “anti-union discrimination” that was “undertaken with improper motive and animus.”

HLRB members were uncertain Thursday whether the case ought to go forward in their jurisdiction.

“I’m not sure we’re the proper forum,” said Chairman Kerry M. Komatsubara, suggesting that Bennett’s claims may instead be a civil matter that should be heard in Circuit Court.

Bennett, who moved here with his wife and two children, said after Thursday’s session he “absolutely would not” have taken the position at UH, had he known the university wouldn’t make good on its commitment regarding the MRI center. While other faculty members are supportive, he said no one in the administration is trying to resolve the matter.

“This is a bad thing, that people learn the university does things like this to faculty. It hurts in hiring,” he said.

“There’s a difference between what you should do and what you can get away with. They’re going with what they can get away with.”

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