Professors sue Tufts over new compensation, lab space policies

The Arnold Wing of the Tufts University School of Medicine is pictured. John Phelan / Wikimedia Commons

Eight faculty members at the Tufts University School of Medicine sued Tufts over the medical school’s revised compensation plan and research space allocation guidelines, which they allege violate their lifetime work contracts and threaten to force them out from the school.

According to the official complaint filed in Middlesex County Superior Court on Dec. 5, 2019, the university has cut the tenured professors’ salaries and threatened the laboratory space critical for their research to continue.

The professors, who have been members of the medical school’s basic sciences department for decades, are challenging certain policies relating to faculty compensation and research space. According to the compensation policy, which the university implemented on July 1, 2017, tenured faculty are expected to support 40% of their salary through external research funding. Faculty who do not meet this expectation may be subject to appointment reductions.

When the professors were first offered tenure at Tufts, there was no obligation to support their salaries with outside funding, according to Kevin Peters, the attorney with Gesmer Updegrove LLP who represents the faculty members.

Peters said that tenure, which traditionally provides professors academic freedom and guarantees them economic security, has allowed the faculty members to engage in research regardless of whether that research was funded by federal agencies.

However, Peters said that the new fundraising requirements mean that any tenured Tufts professor who wishes to keep their job must instead focus almost exclusively on scientific topics of sufficient interest to the reviewers for federal or philanthropic grants to attract funding.

“If you put a condition on these professors that they have to meet certain production standards, if you will, then they are going to have to shift the focus of their research to areas that are more attractive to federal funding,” Peters said. “And their academic freedom, as guaranteed by their tenure, is violated as a result.”

As a result, the new fundraising requirements have put intense financial pressure on the faculty members in the lawsuit. Despite their distinguished careers and substantial contributions to their respective areas of study, the professors are not necessarily focused on topics that generate a lot of federal research grants.

“Almost everything that is developed and discovered in basic science has major applicability to questions in human medicine,” Professor Michael Malamy, one of the plaintiffs, said. “However, this is not immediately recognized by sources of funding.”

The professors are also challenging policies relating to research space which threaten to curtail or shut down faculty members’ laboratories at the medical school.

The medical school’s research space guidelines, which were adopted in 2016 according to Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins, allow the university to determine a professor’s research space utilization based upon the amount of funding they sustain per square foot of research and research-related space. According to the policy, if a senior researcher’s lab has been underfunded for more than three years, the university can take measures to downsize the space or reallocate it entirely on the grounds that it is being underutilized.

The consequence of the research space guidelines and the compensation plan, when considered in conjunction with one another, is a “degenerative spiral” where those who have dedicated their lives to researching problems too “original or arcane” to attract funding from federal agencies are denied the allocated space to pursue such novel and yet-to-be funded work, according to court documents.

“The lab space becomes important because in order to obtain grant money, you almost always have to have preliminary data that you submit with your grant,” Professor Brent Cochran, another plaintiff, said. “So if you don’t have a lab to generate preliminary data, then you can’t get your grant, and if you don’t get a grant, then your salary is going to be cut — and you have no way of regaining your salary.”

The university became aware of the lawsuit on Friday, Dec. 6. It has since then defended the policies, claiming that they are fully consistent with the commitment of the university and the medical school to core principles of tenure, academic freedom and equitable treatment of all employees.

“Tufts University believes that [the faculty members’] claims are without merit,” Collins wrote in an email. “The research space guidelines and the compensation plan, which were adopted in 2016 and 2017, respectively, apply to all tenured basic science faculty in the School of Medicine, are equitable, transparent and reward quality research and related productivity, which are integral to the School’s mission.”

The faculty members who have not been able to meet the new fundraising requirements have seen their salaries cut or threatened and their laboratories closed or downsized, according to court documents. According to Malamy, the constant threats of laboratory closure and pay reduction have created significant problems for the professors, ranging from an inability to hire graduate lab assistants to the cessation of potentially ground-breaking research.

Professor Henry Wortis began researching the loss of resistance to infectious diseases associated with age after experiencing a serious infection himself, making a discovery that mice could be used to discover genes related to older people’s immunity to infection, according to court documents. The complaint went on to explain that the closure of his laboratory and subsequent pay cuts made it virtually impossible for him to continue his research.

The professors, Wortis, Amy Yee, Theoharis Theoharides, Ana Soto, Emmanuel Pothos, Malamy, David Greenblatt and Cochran, are also concerned about their general economic security. As a result of this, a number of faculty members have actually given up tenure to take up short-term teaching contracts, according to Cochran. Others have left the medical school entirely.

Peters explained that the key question the lawsuit seeks to answer is whether or not faculty members awarded tenure before the changes were made to the research space guidelines and compensation plan should be required to follow them, because their tenure contracts were agreed to before such changes were made.

“Academic freedom is what it is and should be honored,” Peters said. “As to my collection of people, they have been tenured for a long time and to change the rules on these folks, especially since some of them are at the tail end of their careers, it’s not only contractually improper — it’s frankly unfair.”

As for now, the future of the faculty members’ financial security and academic freedom at the medical school remains unclear.

“The university is waging a war on its faculty,” Malamy said. “It is not the comfortable academic home that I have enjoyed for such a long period of time.”