Research problem: internally trenched

Some former university employees are saying problems with research — resulting in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — stem from high staff turnover rates in the past few years and problems with leadership in the Office of the Protection of Research Subjects.

In a June 2001 memorandum to NU researchers and their staff, a senior research administrator wrote, “The past few months have proven very challenging for (research department) with 100 percent staff turnover, an ever-increasing workload and the introduction of new regulations.”

Annual reports by Northwestern’s vice president for research show that half of the research office’s staff left the department between 2001 and 2002. Thirty percent left between 2002 and 2003.

Vice President for Research C. Bradley Moore told The Daily on Friday that he is concerned about high turnover rates in the research office.

“A high turnover rate is a serious problem — there’s no question about that,” said Moore, who started the job May 1. “Excessive turnover is bad news. You spend all the time training people instead of getting the job done.”

An October 2002 report by the USDA accused NU of mistreating animals, keeping faulty records and failing to provide sufficient staff training. The report prompted an investigation by the USDA and the National Institutes of Health into NU’s research practices.

Moore declined to discuss specifics of the USDA investigation as well as current and past staff.

Associate Vice President for Research David Johnson, who wrote the June 2001 memo, said it is difficult to speculate why there was such a high turnover rate.

“Someone moved because they didn’t like the pressure of the work (and) someone moved because they didn’t like their boss,” Johnson told The Daily on May 8.

OUTSIDE OF HER AUTHORITY

For research to occur, the research office must ensure that research proposals comply with federal guidelines. After a researcher submits a proposal, the department’s staff reviews it and present it a federally mandated committees for approval.

Mary Ellen Sheridan, vice president for research at University of Chicago, said it is important that research office employees and committee members have sufficient experience with the scientific and medical procedures. Often those involved in research administration have doctoral and medical degrees, she said.

The USDA report also noted that the former director of administration in the research office “went outside of her responsibilities and authority to ‘administratively approve’ a proposed activity that requires the review of the committee.”

The director of administration at the time of the USDA’s initial investigation was Carol Nielsen, who came to NU in 1995 and served as director of the research office until 2001. Nielsen, now the department’s human subjects research specialist, declined to comment for this story.

According to an interview in the March 30, 2000, Northwestern Observer, Nielsen, who was trained as a librarian, worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prior to becoming a staff liaison to the president of the American Library Association. Nielsen also has served as a consultant, indexer and editor of databases.

Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage declined to comment on Nielsen’s position.

‘BORDERLINE ABUSIVE’

Although the majority of the former research office employees left of their own accord, some said the office environment was not one in which people felt comfortable and wanted to work.

“(Nielsen) treated staff in a way that was not appropriate,” said a former employee who wished to remain anonymous. “And when you combine that with high stress and a pay scale that is not high, it’s borderline abusive.”

Some former employees said Nielsen was very aggressive and often yelled at others for not following directions, even when they were.

“She likes having people afraid of her,” the former employee said.

Some former employees said they still do not know why Johnson and research administrators allowed Nielsen to remain in the office.

But personal issues with co-workers aside, NU faculty who use the research office circulated a petition to remove Nielsen from her job in early 2001. According to several former employees, the faculty sometimes were intimidated by Nielsen and were concerned about the office’s organizational problems.

A former employee also said that when employees left, they often were not permitted to pass on information to replacements, which only further contributed to office disorganization.

UNANSWERED COMPLAINTS

The USDA report also indicated that NU’s research office does not have an employee review process.

“The (research) facility must develop and establish procedures for assessing the training and qualifications of their personnel,” according to the report. “These reviews must ensure that training and qualifications meet the requirements of the regulations.”

Sheridan said a large exodus of staff can cause many problems because research administration is such a highly specialized area.

“Anytime one person leaves, that has an impact,” she said. “You can’t just have anyone walk in the door. It takes time and understanding.”

Guy Miller, NU’s associate vice president for human resources, said he is aware that some employee complaints were filed against the research office, but did not know of any specifics.

A number of former employees said they complained to NU’s human resources department — and their complaints fell on deaf ears.

“Human resources was a joke,” said another former employee. “They were of no help.”

Most complaints were directed at the , and in particular Nielsen, the former employees said. One former employee estimated that almost 40 grievances were filed against the department’s leaders since Nielsen has been in charge.

Anne McNicholl, director of human resources and operations consultant in NU’s Office of Research, did not return phone calls.

A former employee said McNicholl was “sent to be a watchdog” as the OPRS became “crazy.”

“(McNicholl) held a lot of information,” the former employee said. “She knew everyone under the sun was unhappy with Carol.”

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