EXCLUSIVE: 4 UH Cancer Center researchers file successful complaints against director

EXCLUSIVE: 4 UH Cancer Center researchers file successful complaints against director
Dr. Michele Carbone
Dr. Michele Carbone
Bob Cooney, UH researcher
Bob Cooney, UH researcher
Dr. Randy Wada
Dr. Randy Wada

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Four University of Hawaii Cancer Center researchers have successfully filed academic freedom complaints in disputes with Dr. Michele Carbone, director of the center.  Carbone dismisses critics who worry that behind-the-scenes dysfunction will harm the center's ability to recruit top-quality researchers for the center's new $104 million complex in Kakaako.

Dr. Randy Wada spent 16 years working for the UH Cancer Center before leaving for the UH School of Nursing after a dispute he had with Carbone last year.

"The university is getting a reputation that's probably not as becoming as it could be," Wada said.

One Friday, Carbone told Wada to end his medical practice with pediatric cancer patients at Kapiolani Medical Center and concentrate on his lab work.

"I told him you come to work on Monday," Carbone said.  "But he said 'I can't come to work on Monday because I have to see patients in private practice.'  But have you ever heard that you cannot come to work because you have another job?  I mean, come on, I find it unreal!"

Wada said at first Carbone gave him just two days to wrap up his Kapiolani medical practice.

"That was unacceptable," Wada said, since he was dealing with children with cancer who were about to get or recovering from bone marrow transplants, among other complicated cases.  He is the medical director of the pediatric bone marrow program at Kapiolani Medical Center.

After Wada asked for more time, Carbone extended the transition time to one week, Wada said. Carbone said he eventually gave Wada one month to close his medical practice but Wada chose instead to leave the cancer center.

Wada filed an academic freedom complaint with UH, claiming Carbone improperly tried to stop him from studying child cancer patients, for which he won a $170,000 grant.

"The committee voted unanimously that my academic freedom had been violated and that there were some recommendations about that that were endorsed by the vice chancellor's office," Wada said.

A UH academic freedom committee that investigated the complaint concluded, "Dr. Wada should have the academic freedom to pursue this project, as it is broadly within his area of expertise."

In a second case, UH found Carbone improperly tried to replace the leadership of a lucrative $8 million-a-year grant cataloguing blood specimens from thousands of Hawaii residents without telling the researchers who were in charge of it.  The project is known as the multi-ethnic cohort, which is invaluable to researchers for its 215,000 medical records and 65,000 blood specimens of people from Hawaii of different ethnic backgrounds.

Carbone said he was worried it would be transferred to a researcher who was going to move to the mainland, because Dr. Laurence Kolonel, who headed the project, was planning to retire and wanted to turn it over to a researcher who planned to leave the Cancer Center for work elsewhere. Kolonel, who retired at the end of last year, declined to comment.

"Because in the end, this multi-ethnic cohort is the blood of Hawaiians, belongs to the Cancer Center and we need somebody who is staying here and who is not going somewhere else," Carbone said.

UH Manoa Vice Chancellor Reed Dasenbrock wrote Carbone a scathing memo Oct. 8, 2012, in which he found the academic freedom of two veteran researchers, Kolonel and Dr. Loic Le Marchand, had been violated. Le Marchand, who still works at the center, also declined an interview with Hawaii News Now.

"Your actions were not in accord with NIH (National Institutes of Health) policies," Dasenbrock wrote to Carbone. "This is surely damaging to all of our efforts to secure NIH funding."

"Given that you have now been found to have violated the academic freedom of three UHCC faculty, my direction to you is that you not even start down the path of changing the PI (principal investigator) of a grant without a thorough discussion of the reasons for so doing with the central administration," Dasenbrock said.

Carbone said he'd had such a discussion in that case during a meeting with UH President MRC Greenwood and then-UH Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw, and they agreed with him that he program and its specimens needed to remain in Hawaii.

"Dasenbrock was not part of any of the president's meetings," Carbone said.  "Dasenbrock was not part of anything that brought anything that brought the cancer center to what it is.  So Dasenbrock is talking about something that he did not have direct experience with.  Also Dasenbrock is not a researcher, he is a professor of English literature, so he does not exactly understand, on direct experience, on how grants go."

Asked if Dasenbrock was wrong in his memo, Carbone was silent.

Dasenbrock's memo summarized the situation as saying that Carbone's bad relationship with the two researchers in charge of the multi-ethnic cohort lacked "candor and collegiality."

Dasenbrock went on to say, "…you are characterizing your own behavior in this situation as lacking in candor and collegiality, which you then defend by saying that they were uncollegial first."

"If indeed they behaved uncollegially toward you before you behaved uncollegially towards them, this does not to my mind justify a 'tit-for-tat' response on the part of the cognizant administrator," Dasenbrock wrote.

"Our reputation has been severely damaged by that," said UH researcher Bob Cooney, a former associate director of the UH Cancer Center who worries that potential cancer researchers will be scared away from UH by the dysfunction.

"Anybody who would come into this environment is out of their minds. Oh, that's my feeling, that's one of the reasons I got out," Cooney said. "To do those kinds of things, word gets around and I think it's going to be very difficult to recruit anybody that's reputable under the circumstances."

Responding to that criticism, Carbone said, "I don't think it will scare people from working here.  I think that nowhere else in the world such complaints would have been filed and nowhere else in the world would they have been considered. That's for sure."

He pointed out he's been able to recruit top researchers from universities like Brown, Yale and North Carolina.  And since Carbone took over nearly four years ago, he said the Cancer Center has tripled its amount of research grants, bringing in $32 million a year.

"There is a complete misrepresentation of what academic freedom is," Carbone said. "Academic freedom does not mean that you can choose not to come to work.  Academic freedom means that you have to be within your job duties, free to do your research and free to teach.  But that does not mean that you can do whatever you want."

Cooney said, "Many of those people that produced the success have been driven out of the university.  And have been harassed by the current administration."

"Carl Vogel, the former director, is the one that really got the money from the legislature to build this building and he's been vilified by the current administration.  In fact, he doesn't even have an office in this building.  He's left back at the old cancer center building," on Lauhala Street near Queen's Medical Center, Cooney said.

Carbone denied Vogel has been ostracized.

"Because Dr. Vogel has not been able to bring in research grants to the university for the past, I don't know how many years, since he's been here, we cannot give a laboratory to him," Carbone said, noting that the center will only host researchers who bring in research funding, like grants.

"He's actually lying," Vogel said, claiming his last research grant, worth more than $400,000 over five years, terminated a year ago.

"I am ostracized," Vogel said. "There are only three or four people left at Lauhala Street.  My trash bin is no longer emptied.  My fax line has been removed."

"He has refused to give space in the new building for one of the largest peer-reviewed federal grants at the Cancer Center," Vogel said, referring to a $1-million-a-year institutional grant from the National Cancer Institute that he oversees, supporting joint research projects for Pacific Islanders in a partnership between UH and the University of Guam.

Vogel said he too, filed an academic freedom complaint against Carbone when he tried to take the NCI grant away from him last year.  Vogel said that complaint was unanimously decided in his favor, against Carbone.  That's the fourth complaint that was sustained against Carbone, something that UH faculty union officials said has never happened in recent history or perhaps ever.

Vogel arrived at UH in 1999 as director of the Cancer Center and stepped down at the end of 2008.

Vogel hired Carbone as a professor in 2006.

"Some people tell me that's the biggest mistake I made in ten years at the Cancer Center," Vogel said, with a chuckle.

UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple said he is not worried it will be hard to recruit good researchers and faculty members because word will spread about disputes involving the head of the Cancer Center.

"We're dealing with very talented people who have some pretty severe disagreements about how things should run.  But that's not unusual for an organization in academia that's doing some great things," Apple said. "I think we have the, undoubtedly, the best cancer center building in the country.  That's a very attractive thing to bringing people here and we have a good research record."

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