Leaving CWRU: A Summary Defenestration or The Dreyfus Affair?

Originally posted: October 2013

If I face the latter, I will need to get some dry cleaning done.

I am pretty torn about the situation. In one way, I am ecstatic. Everyone who knows me knows that I want to spend a lot more time in New Orleans. I’ve had a secret goal of figuring out how to do this by the time I reach the age of 40 next month. I wasn’t going to make my goal. In May, however, we found out that the grant that has been funding me has not been renewed and none of the work-arounds we would usually use are available now. Looks like I’m going to make my goal! God Willing, I have seen my last Ohio Winter and have made my escape from fluorescent lights and criminally insane HVAC systems. Over this I can hardly contain my jubilation.

On the other hand, I have a strong emotional investment in my projects. It will be hard to walk away, I admit. I love being part of the story of studying energy homeostasis in Cystic Fibrosis. I’m not raising kids or producing art. This body of work is my fulfillment (I have convinced myself). I love my science and I love working with Mitch Drumm, but I have to face facts: I have put myself on a life path defined by climbing many smaller mountains, not one big one and I have to keep myself on it. I’m not on a path for growth in academia (on purpose). My role is mercenary (money for data, data for money). The sense of unfinished business sickens me, but Science is by definition always unfinished business. I can always step back into the stream in the future if I like, I suppose. That is the beauty of my position as a non-academic.

Everyone's Friend!

My friend, Professor Ignacio “Doc Oc” Ocasio.

One must not forfeit personal growth in trade for security and comfort (don’t we all do it?). I would happily become the world’s oldest lab bench monkey for the salary of a McDonald’s manager if it were up to me. Instead of money, I get paid in science round-table discussion with some pretty good brains. But many of those brains are retiring (some a little early due to economics). CWRU seems to be seeing yet another Exodus in talent (I’ve seen a few).

My supervisor Mitch is BMOC these days and he’s insanely busy. Not only are the round-tables few and far between now, he’s getting to the point where he doesn’t answer Emails. If I have to schedule an audience through his admin assistant, this isn’t a lab anymore. And some of the junior investigators rushing in to fill the void still have a lot to learn regarding people skills, self-importance and Prima donnism (not taught in their Ph.D programs). So I have extreme gratitude for this kick from the nest. One should not stay too long at the party. You guys have fun with that.

So Case people, get in your final smooches, flowers, accolades, grab-assing or whatever you like (most of my CWRU friends already left some time ago, so I won’t hold my breath). After you get out of a long relationship with a person, you instinctively go back and listen to music you stopped listening to when that person came into your life. You try to find ‘the old you’. As Joni sang, “So now I’m returning to myself these things that you and I suppressed.”

Well, I have definitely put a section of my life on hold for CWRU and shall promptly return to it, older, wiser and leaner, if thinner-haired and even more dispirited. I have dinner reservations in New Orleans the first weekend in December and should be back in Ohio some time before Mardi Gras. I have a few (hundred) plans for future cash acquisition, but in the immediate future, I’m going to work back-of the-house in a company (site still being built) my bride and I have been attempting to get off the ground, which, if it works, will support our desires for a bi-coastal lifestyle. I have left the door open to do science in the future, but only science that I love and I have to be free to come and go seasonally. Science that is too-closely tied to our dysfunctional government will just have me jumping from one sinking ship to another.

This is the part where I stop and sing a song to the great state of Louisiana. I will provide the long, boring insider part of the story after the break (most of you can stop reading now).

the rocky horror picture show (1975) i’m going home on Vimeo.

Since I bought a place in New Orleans in 2008, I have been talking with Mitch about doing seasonal employment. A few years after that I started talking with CWRU human resources and my department’s administrator. Mitch says he is fine with the idea. CWRU told me to jump into the lake. Even if I were allowed to do this, the amount of paperwork and bureaucratic bullshit Mitch would have to face in order to put me onto payroll then take me off six months later (each year) would be insurmountable. Also, many grants are planned out 3 or more years in advance. The only way it may be feasible is if I work through Kelly temp agency. So I’ve been been patiently planning my escape since then, but to have my cake and eat it, too, I would come back and do big projects for Mitch if he could manage the funding and planning.

After the government budget sequestration started earlier this year, we started getting warning shots of “rolling furloughs”across the bow from the dean.

Then I found out that the grant that pays for me wasn’t re-funded.
We used to have an old trick of re-defining the roles people play slightly in order to justify which grants pay for them (you have to have tricks to fund the Skunkworks). But CWRU is a little overly Government-dependent compared to other research universities. We have been robbing Peter to pay Paul since the 2008 “economic downturn” and continuing grants have been cut each year by $30K and $60K chunks. As my boss says, “We’re out of rabbits to pull out of the hat”. He keeps submitting for grants but they keeps not getting funded.

At least that’s what they tell me. In Academia, if it’s decided you’re an asshole, you get the same story: “Sorry, Buddy, we ain’t gots no more!” (hands pulling empty pockets inside-out). It’s not like we get to review or audit the grant situation. We couldn’t. The people in charge of the grants usually have no freaking clue, either. But we know the department has been carrying me since June and CWRU HR has been screaming at my boss ever since. CWRU is, of course, bottom-line oriented. 13 years of blood, sweat and tears* count for nothing. Well, I get to be considered an “internal candidate” when applying for jobs they post for a year.

*OK, more like blood, drinking coffee and ogling co-eds

Then came shot two across the bow:

Listen up!

To the Faculty and Staff of the School of Medicine:
Last month I wrote regarding the federal government’s sequester and its deleterious effects on research nationwide. Despite ongoing protests and efforts to educate members of Congress regarding the consequences of these cuts, we have seen no change on Capitol Hill. In fact, our funding agencies have begun to issue more specific guidance regarding the size of the reductions we should expect. As just one example, our Clinical and Translational Science Award is scheduled to shrink by more than $1 million in 2013-2014.

As devastating as these developments are, failing to act on them poses even greater dangers. If we plan ahead and adjust now, we at least will be able to manage the implications over time. Over the past several months we have worked to control costs within the school’s central administration and have encouraged department chairs to reduce spending through measures like sharing equipment and staff or taking greater advantage of core services. Now that more time has passed without legislative action, we must increase our efforts to accommodate the grant cuts we face in this federal fiscal year – and the even greater ones on the horizon.

Our primary goal is to manage these fiscal challenges with the least negative impact on research or the people who perform it. To that end, our first step is to offer a series of voluntary measures that staff, principal investigators, department chairs and other leaders can consider together. We hope to achieve the savings necessary through this collaborative approach because we very much want to avoid more draconian mandatory measures later.

I also want to note that we are creating a school-based Hiring Management Committee composed of administrative and faculty leaders. Its charge will be to evaluate every applicable posting to determine whether a new position truly needs to be added or a vacant one filled. We have asked department chairs to conduct their own assessment before choosing to submit a position for review. In some instances the committee will allow the hiring process to advance immediately, while in others it may delay or deny the proposal. Positions funded 100 percent from external grants or recruitment packages are exempt from this process.

Now, as for some of the individual options, please see below. Not all will be available to every employee, as individual departments and principal investigators will need to determine which options are necessary and appropriate for their areas. They do not apply to graduate students, who receive stipends, rather than salaries. We will provide additional details regarding how employees and principal investigators can implement these choices shortly, but we wanted to make them public promptly so that everyone can begin considering them with regard to individual circumstances. In each case, both the staff person and the supervisor must agree on the choice selected for it to be enacted.

I. Job Share

– Two (2) staff employees fill one (1) full-time position

– Salary and benefits are prorated

– Expense of the shared position cannot exceed that of the full-time position

– Part-time health insurance premiums apply

– Staff Employees must maintain 0.5 FTE to qualify for benefits

II. Vacation Buy

– Employees may purchase between five (5) and twenty (20) additional vacation days during the fiscal year; payments deducted from paychecks during the fiscal year

– Purchased days must be used during the fiscal year (i.e., no carryover)

– Staff employees with at least one (1) year of service and who are in good standing are eligible

– Fringe benefits maintained

III. Vacation Raise

– Vacation days awarded in lieu of a salary increase at supervisor’s discretion

– Maximum ten (10) vacation days can be awarded

– Requires performance rating “meets standards, good contributor” or above

– Fringe benefits maintained

IV. Reduced Schedule

– Work part-time for a designated period of time or indefinitely

– Salary and benefits prorated

V. Partial Work Year

– Work full-time weeks, but for nine (9), ten (10), or eleven (11) months

– Salary prorated and paid over twelve (12) months

– Full-time fringe benefits maintained
VI. Convenience Leave

– Unpaid leave to decrease employment levels during less hectic work periods

– Benefits continue during unpaid leave.

Again, we will have open meetings later this month where supervisors and staff can inquire about these options, and will provide additional details about the program as they become available. Those who want to learn more about these options should speak with their immediate supervisors or contact the Senior Director of Benefits. You also may speak with the university’s Vice President for Human Resources.
I deeply wish that we did not have to discuss these matters. Our medical school’s research is producing such promising progress and extraordinary breakthroughs. I would prefer to invest more in your efforts – not only because the work merits it, but also because patients need it. But our elected representatives have given us no choice. Our only responsible step is to act on what we know and reduce spending in the most rational, thoughtful and sensitive manner possible. Thank you for all that you do for our School of Medicine; I look forward to speaking with you later this month.

So things are pretty rough in academic science right now. I’m not the first in this recent situation. I’m proud to say I’ve made it through several recent rounds of sweeping personnel cuts. But I told Mitch at the beginning of summer: “Don’t forget about my New Orleans thing. There is no point in canning someone and keeping me just to have me leave in a year”. After telling me to jump in the lake, you see above that Case offers (V.) Partial work year. So we’ll see.

I should not deny that there are certainly some things from which I will LOVE walking away. Academia is as pathological with passive-aggressive back-biting office politics as anything can possibly be. Whatever you hate about your job, if all of that went away, when there is nothing to complain about and everyone is playing with other people’s money and the job is warm, dry and fun, people are only left with turning on each other. So much has been restrained out of respect for Mitch!
Learning to sit back and smile at the Shit Show and Circle Jerk is a good skill, too.
So “Ta, for now” CWRU. I would like to get all sentimental, but you’re sure as Hell not. I have to do this “life begins at 40” stuff now, I guess.

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