Richard Bruce Needleman was a pioneer in yeast genetics with a renowned reputation internationally while on the faculty of Wayne State University.
But in recent years, Needleman changed his research focus and WSU officials alleged that he hadn’t published in a scholarly journal or landed a grant in more than a decade.
They also charged that he hadn’t submitted many grant proposals, and wasn’t teaching much — charges that Needleman vehemently denied.
But that’s why WSU tried to fire him and four other medical school professors, arguing they abused their tenure, an indefinite academic appointment that’s a hallmark in the life of a scholar.
Needleman retired in August before the university decided his case, but a transcript of his detenuring hearing last spring gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into academic politics, the complexities of tenure and the challenges a school faces in trying to take tenure away from a faculty member.
Two other professors, Gunter Deppe and William Brusilow, agreed to teach half-time for three years, then retire. A hearing for one professor started last week and is scheduled to continue Monday, while another is pending.
In an interview, Needleman said the charges were “a complete lie.” He said he had published more than 10 papers in peer-reviewed publications during the time period in question, made landmark discoveries and continued critical research, making him the face of WSU in the international basic science community.
He also said he had taught every course he was asked to teach and was doing research in a new area that was financed with the personal funds of a colleague. Needleman’s plan was to generate preliminary work and, eventually, seek external grant funding.
“My record is no different from other full professors,” said Needleman, who joined WSU in 1978. “They didn’t say my research was bad. ... My work has been cited 8,000 times. The next highest citations in my department was about 2,000 times.
“Basically they didn’t like the fact that my research wasn’t bringing in grant money, like many people,” he said. “However, I used $500,000 of my colleague’s money to do the research. But they don’t get a cut of that.”
Needleman added that the hearing never examined his research or compared it to others, and that administrators went after him to assassinate his character.
“It’s bogus” he said.
Before Needleman’s hearing, only two other times in WSU’s 149-year history had the university begun proceedings to take away a professor’s tenure. In both cases, the faculty member prevailed.
The time and energy put into the detenuring effort illustrate why it is so unusual in academia, WSU President M. Roy Wilson said in an interview.
“The fact that it has taken this long to get through one blatant, obvious case of abuse of tenure is a travesty, and it’s not a formula for a high-performing organization,” he said. “It’s such a long, protracted process and that’s why (universities) don’t want to do it.”
Faculty members spend their careers working toward tenure, and it shouldn’t be easy for administrators to take it away, said Charles Parrish, president of the WSU American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors.
At the hearing, Parrish testified the detenuring was linked to Wilson and several people who joined the president’s cabinet after he started at WSU in 2013, including David Hefner, vice president for health affairs, and Lisa Keane, head of the faculty practice plan, the University Physician Group.
From that point onward, Parrish said, medical faculty faced tremendous pressure to bring in more grants.
Parrish testified he was concerned by an expectations grid that WSU told tenured faculty to submit to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation or other outside funding agencies.
“It was pretty directive in terms of what you should be doing in terms of your own work,” Parrish said. “It’s a concern because it is a violation of the academic freedom that is guaranteed by tenure. ... that you can do the research that you think is interesting and important to you.”
University of Michigan professor Michael Bastedo, director of the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, said seeking and landing grants and publishing in journals are ways scholars demonstrate productivity.
Grants pay for the direct cost of a project but also the indirect costs of a medical school, Bastedo said.
“Overall in universities, there is increased pressures to compensate for the decline in state investment,” Bastedo said. “And that can be done in a number of ways. They might have clinical revenue coming in from patients. (Grant funding is) not the only source of revenue outside of the state or the university, but it is one of the major ones. And often it is one that is perceived as (something) we have some control over: We have control over whether or not we are submitting grants to fund our work.”
Needleman’s detenuring proceedings began March 29.
He and six witnesses testified and included highlights of his work spanning 39 years at WSU, where officials said he earned $154,115 annually.
The detenuring process started in earnest shortly after Professor Jack Sobel became dean of the Wayne State School of Medicine in 2014, according to the transcript. At the time, the university’s national reputation had dropped dramatically, morale was low and a number of conflicts existed with hospital partners, Sobel testified during the detenuring proceedings.
Sobel testified there was “a very striking recognition of low productivity of numerous members of all the basic science departments.”
Faculty were divided into three categories: productive, underproductive and unproductive. Sobel testified he worked with department chairs on ways to make underperforming faculty more productive.
Needleman, who was granted tenure in 1984, fell into the small group of unproductive faculty because he had not had a funded grant since 2003, Sobel said.
“His scholastic accomplishment was exceptional in the 1980s and 1990s, but for a 15-year period had almost ceased to exist,” Sobel said.
Before the proceeding for Needleman began, the dean testified, he met with him and other professors to address their situations and push for improvement.
Sobel testified that Needleman dismissed the university’s claims and made no changes in his work.
Virginia Delaney-Black, vice dean of faculty affairs, was blunt when asked if Needleman was still lauded by his peers.
“He had a national reputation,” she testified. “Now, his reputation is sullied by having had a long period of nonproductivity.”
Needleman said in an interview that he told Delaney-Black she was ignorant about science, and that’s why she had a vendetta against him.
During his testimony, he said he had published, and had been working in another research area involving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and acute liver failure with Brusilow, a colleague who had funded all of it.
He said administrators did not discuss his research because they didn’t understand it, and the university was primarily concerned about funding.
“They care only that it exists ... that I have grant money for it,” he said. “There is no interest in whether the research I did was good, bad or indifferent.”
He said the allegations that he was inactive and unproductive for 10 or more years were false. “Grant money cannot be substituted for scholarship.”
Before coming to Wayne State, Needleman developed the first mitochondrial genetic system — the first system where mutations could easily be made in mitochondrial DNA, and nuclear DNA, that affected mitochondrial development.
This discovery was landmark, he said, and allowed him to choose any medical school to do research. Needleman testified he went to WSU because, unlike other programs, Wayne State was a “hard money” medical school — meaning it didn’t require him to get a certain amount of grant money to support his salary.
“It was never a condition of tenure,” Needleman said.
In his career, Needleman made other major discoveries, some of which are in biochemistry textbooks, and chaired major international science meetings.
Around 2000, Needleman said he and Brusilow began contemplating a notion that excess glutamate, a chemical in the brain, is important in many neurological diseases. So they began working on a project with two drugs.
Needleman testified that he and Brusilow knew that they were not going to get a grant because there was no preliminary data in their experiments. Brusilow bought all the mice, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money, according to Needleman. Four or five years passed without publication.
Through email, Brusilow declined to talk about his work with Needleman.
He added that the three-year, half-time phased retirement is part of the union contract. He chose it because WSU merged the biochemistry department, where he worked, with the department of immunology and microbiology, and he didn’t want to work in the new entity.
“Whatever the university was planning on doing with regard to detenuring — and I do not know what that might have been — it had no effect on my decision,” Brusilow said.
In his interview with The News, Needleman suggested that the process was stacked against him: He said the committee assembled for his hearing included English, Spanish and statistics department faculty, who wouldn’t understand his research, and that two of the three school of medicine faculty members were good friends with Sobel.
In a letter to the WSU Board of Governors dated Friday, Needleman said the medical school “is being run by business managers rather than academics who are targeting faculty using the values of corporate management, and doing so to the detriment of WSU’s national reputation.”
“All in all, my de-tenuring process was an intellectually dishonest exercise of the School of Medicine administration,” Needleman wrote, adding that if the university continues down this path, WSU will “become a national pariah.”
But Wilson said the university needed to take the steps it did.
When asked about Brusilow and Deppe, the Wayne State president said he went along with their phased-in retirements because it could have taken just as long to detenure them as to let them stay on for three years.
“Do I like it? No,” Wilson said. “But I accept it. It’s preferable to a long, arduous process. But right is right. If you are going to get paid by the public to work, you should work. You should be accountable. That is all we are asking.”