- Part I: PSU Still a Hunting Ground - A Case Study in the Department of Chemical Engineering’s Handling of a Title IX Case Post-Sandusky [9 pages]
- Part II: Demotion of Safety Culture in Laboratory Relocations- From sewage to biohazards, Penn State denies its role in creating unsafe move conditions--from the top-down [33 pages with 100 pages of supplementary content & 20 minutes of video footage]
In conjunction with the release of Parts I and II of my 'Swept Under the PSU Rug Series', I ask all Penn State stakeholders--faculty, staff, administrators, students past, present, & future, greater State College and Middle Pennsylvania communities--to please sign the petition in support of the recommendations put forth in Part II of the Swept Under the PSU Rug proposal.
Demotion of Safety Culture in Lab Relocations: from sewage to biohazards, Penn State denies its role in creating unsafe move conditions--from the top-down
On August 18th, 2016, the timetable for the demolition of the former Chemical Engineering building, Fenske Laboratory, was moved up significantly to September 23rd---only 36 days later---from a now-contested planned exit date between October 31st, 2016 and January 2017. Despite capital raised for the demolition and reconstruction costs of this building totaling in excess of $144M and another $5.4M set aside for temporary space expenses alone, minimal support was provided to laboratories to meet the demands of relocation to temporary space; faculty were mandated to use their personal time, federally-supported research personnel, and research incentive funds to accomplish the move. Support provided by the Office of Physical Plant was highly constrained, a request for support specifically to meet safety constraints was denied by the Chemical Engineering Department Head, and support otherwise was highly insufficient.
As a result, two month-long experiments were ruined; students and staff were exposed to hazardous conditions including weeks of 15-24-hour days of intense physical labor and exposure to chemical and biological hazards. Staff member repercussions included but were not limited to mental breakdown, depression, and physical symptoms like severe weight loss, vomiting, and aspiration. A visiting scholar’s 6-month visit, meant to foster collaborative research, was completely disrupted by the effort to move and relocate. A faculty member’s sabbatical was delayed, subsequently limiting his sought-after input on a $40M National Laboratory research proposal, which was ultimately not awarded.
Despite these outcomes, the Office of Ethics & Compliance (OEC), reporting directly to the Provost, ruled that allegations of an expedited timeline, hazardous environment, and lack of support were unfounded. In turn, OEC contends that the blame is solely based on the failures of individual faculty researchers. This conclusion was reached by cherrypicking e-mail contents, blaming faculty, and limiting their request for information solely to the subject of the timeline of the move. A general absence of emails communicating the timeline for 2.5 months beyond “Fall 2016” was ignored. E-mails indicating a later timeline were also “discounted” because they were later contradicted by the aforementioned August 15th e-mail entitled “Moving to Greenberg has been moved up” with the first mention of a September 23rd move-out date. The college provided the department’s overburdened dual-functioning building supervisor and safety officer with recognition as a “staff star” and, after further safety violations in 2018, a staff performance award.
Ultimately, decisions made by administrators and leaders at every level---throughout departments, the college, the Office of Environmental Health & Safety, the Office of the Physical Plant, the Office of Ethics & Compliance, and the Provost---all, at minimum, point to a safety culture that does NOT approach the minimum guidelines set forth by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU). In fact, in lieu of safety culture is a culture of endangerment that is propagated by a focus on denial, minimization, blame--at minimum. I hold the opinion that Penn State was negligent in its duty to provide a safe work environment. Looking toward the relocation of the chemical engineering department into the new Chemical & Biomedical Engineering (CEBME) building in 2019 (over the forthcoming weeks and months), the outlook, therefore, does not look promising.
While there may be some changes to safety procedure and even gestures of support that would seem positive taken at face value, I contend that they are not. Offset by the insistence, including by OEC, that no failures having been made by the department or university--just individual labs--during the 2016 Fenske evacuation, any subsequent improvements would merely point to the university’s awareness that safety standards of the Fenske evacuation were woefully underwhelming--if not outright negligent--but nonetheless a preference to “sweep under the rug” past failures. This reflects the university’s pattern to increase the university’s ability to negate liability by pushing more responsibility onto faculty rather than focus on meaningful mechanisms towards stakeholder engagement, support, safety, etc.
To me, Penn State’s actions reflect a post-Sandusky era that tragically have devolved to legally “protecting” the university by preserving administrators and public perception--rather than serving the majority of Penn State stakeholders and preserving the university mission or values of integrity and personal responsibility that were once synonymous with Penn State. Herein, I first provide a rebuttal of OEC’s denial of Dr. Curtis’ allegations of expedited timelines and lack of support. Secondly, I provide the outcomes that I hope arise from this exposė of Penn State’s safety culture.
PDF displayed below via scribd platform also available at THIS LINK and the download link below.
PSU Still A Hunting Ground: A Case Study in the Department of Chemical Engineering’s Handling of a Title IX Case Post-Sandusky
On June 21st, 2016, a student disclosed that he/she had been a victim of sexual assault while enrolled at Penn State University. The student reached out to two chemical engineering faculty members and asked for the opportunity to make up coursework over the summer, stating this would enable him/ her to graduate and accept a pending position. Ultimately, both faculty members failed to report the disclosure to the Title IX office, the university’s centralized office of sexual misconduct & response.
The student was not given the opportunity to make up the coursework, thus failing to graduate. Without consent, the student’s name was disclosed to 25 faculty members and 53 Penn State employees were made aware of the events in its aftermath. Months later, the Title IX office’s (now former) attorney admitted that the case had been “botched”. While not malicious in their intent, the faculty immediately involved in the case represent prevailing university culture. This is an issue that needs to be meaningfully addressed, as mandated by Title IX regulations, to create a truly safe environment in which student victims may come forward and be wholly supported.
This case study of a student victim failed by the Department of chemical engineering also critically highlights a clear lack of leadership in those, that are endowed with the most trust to safeguard students’ health and safety. Specifically, in the (more than) two year period since the student’s disclosure, no corrective action to address this case or the implicit systemic issues has been taken--even when a faculty member has proposed that his failure be used as a teaching opportunity for others. Further, a Penn State employee that repeatedly raised concerns to multiple university offices about the Title IX mishandling and pervasive departmental culture was repeatedly ignored before being made ineligible for re-hire. In fact, on December 3rd, 2017, the chemical engineering department head Phil Savage contended,
"The department has received no criticism or concerns from the Title IX office or any other office at PSU [Pennsylvania State University] regarding its handling of any issues related to sexual misconduct or Title IX cases. Assertions to the contrary are without merit."
It took 1 courageous student victim to come forward, disclose, and ask for support. It took 6 Penn State employees to fail that student in less than 19 days. It has taken 53 Penn State current and former employees cumulatively aware of these events to continue to fail the culture for more than 2 years by ultimately doing nothing to change. This video, posted February 27th, 2015, depicts University President Eric Barron accepting all of the recommendations proposed by the Sexual Assault Task Force. Barron states,
As a member of our community, I’m asking you to take on the weighty responsibility of educating others, reporting issues, preventing harm, and fostering a culture that prioritizes consent and respect… I’m setting our community on a path to create an environment in which sexual misconduct is unacceptable, reporting is encouraged, and survivors are supported to the fullest.
The case study herein (see full PDF below) evidences that this “weighty responsibility” is not something university leadership prioritizes in its own practices.
The PDF displayed below via scribd platform is also available at THIS LINK and the download link below.
SUBJ.: In Memoriam of Elie Wiesel
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Crowdrise for Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
A couple of months ago, I was in DC and stopped at a dessert standby of mine (DBGB). It was a weekday afternoon around 3pm; thus, nearly completely empty aside from the staff meal and wine training in the rear just off the kitchen. I took a seat in the middle of the bar and asked for the dessert menu. A man with sun-soaked skin in a polo--seemingly out-of-place in the white linen brasserie--made some unobtrusive 'small talk' in his thick Southern accent.
When I told him that I was from Penn State, his eyes lit up and he told the bartender that whatever I wanted was on him, assuring me that he (20+ years my senior) was not hitting on me. He moved down into the seat next to me and insisted again that he was not hitting on me but that he really loved Penn State (I believed him, noting that I've bartended enough to have a decent 'read' on people). His polo, it turns out was sporting Alabama colors, and so I had to ask why he had so much enthusiasm for a school that wasn't even in his conference.
I had a hunch; I was right.
Granted, he was 2 beers past me on a weekday afternoon, but within less than a half hour, he confided that he had been molested as a boy and that he would always love Penn State just as much as him own home team because of Joe Paterno and the life of integrity that he led. The bartenders gave us some space while I consoled and hugged him as he cried and told him to stop apologizing for imposing on me and to never be sorry for telling his story, regardless of the setting or circumstances. We talked about the nature of abuse and people's tendency (and more accurately enabling behavior) to want to 'burry their heads in the sand' about shall we say less-than-comfortable topics. When he was in better spirits, I even got a live imitation of his best 'JoePA' strut complete with high-waters and finger-wagging. He also confessed to a handful of bar fights in which he had participated when someone denounced Paterno, which I encouraged him to avoid in the future, naturally in honor of Coach.
* * *
Today, I write in regards to community, culture, and leadership because just as "It takes a village to raise a child", it takes a village to abuse a child--or any victim. Specifically, I share this with you because there is no A-B-C 1-2-3 "Standard" Operating Procedure for what to do when victims of sexual assault disclose even though 1 in 4 women and 1 in 20 men in college are sexually assaulted. Yes, of course, you have specific responsibilities as mandated reporters, which Penn State has obviously made great strides in communicating in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. There is no administrative policy, however, to "deal with" victims (who are NOT minors) and frankly, there shouldn't be. Victims are not a 'problem' to be handled---especially not with a bureaucratic decree and a "I did my due diligence" checklist. Serial rapists are the problem to be dealt with, preferably in a court of law.
Chances of reporting (12%) and a subsequent investigation which leads to prosecution and conviction (ideally with a sentence of more than six months), however, is incredibly slim [ i.e. less than 3%]). Therefore, while ideally all assailants would be imprisoned (and while we're in an ideal world within a prison system that actually aims for reform rather than chronic incarceration of minorities rather than white collar criminals e.g. Wall Street), it is NOT within your purview to tell any victim what they should do. Whether it's in a bar or your classroom, you can listen just like I did (it should go without saying that it is your job to believe them); you can provide resources via the Penn State Title IX office website; you can encourage them to use Project Callisto to maintain records of their assault confidentially; in essence, you can be a human about it.
I can only imagine that in the multitudes of growing responsibilities that all of you have between teaching, serving on various departmental and university committees, physically moving your laboratories, reviewing manuscripts, supervising research, publishing, and otherwise "keeping up with the Jones" in the scientific community,---recently characterized by Atul Gawande both as "arguably the most powerful collective enterprise in human history" as well as "a rickety vehicle for getting to truth"---it is hard to lose sight of how uniquely human and social that teaching, learning, and mentorship inherently is. And like it or not, however high your h-index is or however masterful your p-hacking or however many titles you can add to the bottom of your e-mail signature, you won't be remembered for it. Your legacy will be determined, just as with Joe Paterno, by how you lead your life day-to-day, by your integrity, and by your commitment to servicing the community. More to the point, the societal privilege of academia obligates you to serve the community; and tenure, to operate beyond the status quo---taking the stance that is ultimately right and necessary rather than popular, myopic, and/or convenient.
Attached I provide a powerpoint that should take less than 10 minutes to run through that covers basic information related to sexual assaults on college campuses as an addendum to the Penn State mandated training. In contrast to Penn State's training which focuses on your legal responsibilities, this focuses on (1) victims who are not minors and (2) your moral responsibility.
Thank you for your valuable time and consideration.
P.S. I have no "authority" to send this so if my disruption of hierarchy is offensive to anyone, I sincerely apologize. In regards to the contents though (unless I inadvertently made a factual error), however, I'm not.
2016 Engage COE Climate Survey Town Hall presentation synopsizes "you have a sexist, genderist, heterosexist, racist... classist environment in the College of Engineering".
On September 30th, 2016, the College of Engineering’s ENGAGE climate survey results were presented in back-to-back town halls by Dr. Sue Rankin of Rankin & Associates, the consulting group that performed the survey. The town hall, full report, and executive summary are still available at: https://www.engr.psu.edu/engage/
The 9-minute (loosely-)transcripted contiguous YouTube audio excerpt below includes the Rankin's broad-sweeping generalization at the end of the talk that highlights systemic issues in the College of Engineering and is followed by Q&A with the audience. An interjection from Josh Troxell, who served as the College of Engineering safety officer at the time, noted some of the figures presented were "above safety thresholds". The College of Engineering Dean Amr at the time, who commissioned the climate survey, indicated that he sought for the survey to serve as a benchmark for recurring surveys, tentatively slated every 3 years, to hopefully demonstrate progress.
Rankin also pointed out data that was a likely symptom of the poor climate in the college, stating "You're losing faculty. You're losing them. They come but they don't stay". I could hazard some guesses as to why... but won't here now.
Outside of the excerpt, I personally found Rankin to be an incredibly compelling, engaging speaker. Very much a no-nonsense, straight-shooter. It's been a while but if memory serves, she explained her backstory, which included quite amazingly being fired from Penn State twice but hired three times. Her firing was part of the subject of the Training Rules documentary, (I haven't watched it FYI) which looked at LGBTQ discrimination by former Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland. The Orlando mass shootings of LGBTQ-friendly club Pride had occurred just a few months prior to the town hall and Rankin spoke on how heart-breaking it was for someone that had devoted their life and career to paving a better, safer future for the next generation of LGBTQ individuals. Suffice to say, she exuded gravitas--that was a refreshing change to academia.
Rankin cited her frustration frankly with academia, saying "I'm sick in higher ed... collect the data, make a nice little task force, they create some nice actions that go into a plan. Where does the plan go?... on a shelf. That's not gonna happen in this case. I've been promised, right?" She turned to Dean Amr, who shortly thereafter took a new position at the University of Houston. Unfortunately, the scope of her study was limited to the College of Engineering where the Dean would represent only an 'n of 1'. Otherwise, I might be able to ask what her data says about the retention of university deans.
Based on Elnashai's promise, 2019 would be the next benchmarking year. Looks like, however, that Elnashai's torch won't be carried on by new Dean Justin Schwartz---not that Elnashai's quiet, nearly indiscernible ramblings projected confidence in the promise of his follow-through.
PSU Provost Nick Jones tells staff "Days of Cost of Living Increases... are behind us", then takes a 'modest' $12,000 salary increase to $542,532
At the September 27th, 2017 town hall for Penn State University faculty & staff, Executive VIce President and Provost Nick Jones said "the days of [using air quotes gesture] "cost-of-living increases" (see video below), those days are pretty much behind us". In lieu of cost-of-living raises, a general salary increase pool is to be divvied out in a merit-based fashion.
Jones goes onto explain that the general salary increase pool was based on 2% in 2017, explaining that receiving a raise above or below that 2% average would be meritocratic. Just over a month later, Nick Jones and other Penn State executives receive 'modest' merit-based raises with approval from the Committee on Compensation. In Jones' case, he received a $12,000 raise to a total salary of $542,532---representing a 2.26% increase. In the zero sum game of a 'general salary increase pool', that $1,389.36 was collectively not awarded to Penn State employees who performed worse than Nick Jones.
So, let's consider Nick Jones' merit.
In 2017, Penn State had record-breaking research expenditures of $863M, of which $534M were federal research dollars. In tandem, Penn State also increased the magnitude of its "reduction to cap" from 6.6% to 8.1%. If you're thinking, I have no idea what "reduction to cap" means, you would not be alone. "Reduction to cap" refers to the percentage of research overhead (otherwise known as facilities and administration [F&A Rate]) that exceeds the 26% cap that is set by federal grant guidelines (CFR200). The significance of "reduction to cap" is that it's the portion of research administration that is NOT subsidized by federal research dollars. In conversation with Richard Killian from the Office of the University Comptroller on April 24th, 2017, Richard Killian volunteered that the "reduction to cap" is, therefore, functionally subsidized by out-of-state undergraduate tuition.
So let's talk about what that means in actual dollars and cents.
$534M is the amount of federal funds awarded to Penn State. Not all of these funds would incur the cost of research administration. Things like equipment and participant costs (e.g. compensation / rewards provided to participants in food testing, medical studies) don't incur the cost of research administration. Additionally, subcontracts to other entities only incur research overhead fees on the first $25K of a subcontract. I have no way to discern what portion of that $534M were not subject to research administration, however, so to be conservative, let's just cut the amount by 25% and say $400M. If $400M of federal funds had research overhead applied when in the 2017 Fiscal Year (when 'reduction to cap' was 8.1%), that would mean that out-of-state undergraduate tuition would have had to subsidize $20,467,467 of research administration costs.
For ease, I have also made this spreadsheet available so that anyone can input 1) current F&A, 2) current reduction to cap, and 3) total federal funds [under the same premise as above e.g. no equipment, subcontracts] to return the amount of undergraduate tuition 'subsidy' required.
Granted, Penn State is not the only university that must find a way to pay for research administrative costs on federal grants when they exceed the 26% cap, however, there are big ten universities that keep their research administrative costs at 26% like Northwestern, Michigan State, and Ohio State. This cost competitiveness in research administration to me seems like relevant criteria to the Executive Vice President of Penn State in consideration for a merit-based raise, particularly in a year when the Board of Trustees also authorized a 2.74% tuition hike---even if it was for the in-state undergraduates.
Hey, maybe, it's just me. Maybe others love the sound of his Australian accent as he sells the idea of a meritocracy in order to advance his own salary faster... but ummm, I'm thinking not the kind of university leadership I had in mind.
Note that all of these research accounting #shenanigans are explained in the video below. This video is also included in a playlist of videos that also explains cost-share and research incentive funds, I feel, much better than Penn State's brochure.
In conjunction with the release of Parts I & II of my Swept Under the PSU Rug series, I implore all stakeholders in Penn State University---faculty, staff, alumni past, present, & future, and the greater State College community---to please sign my petition to accept all of the recommendations put forth in Part II of the Series.