EXCLUSIVE: UH Cancer Center director targeted for firing remains on job

Published: Dec. 6, 2013 at 8:54 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 7, 2013 at 1:31 AM HST
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Dr. Michele Carbone
Dr. Michele Carbone

KAKAAKO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dr. Michele Carbone, who heads the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, has survived two attempts by his boss to have him fired, prompting concerns that a lawmaker and hospital executives are interfering in UH affairs.

Carbone is credited with successfully pushing for the construction of UH's new Cancer Center in Kakaako.

But he also has the dubious distinction of having more complaints and grievances filed against him and his administrators than any other unit in UH's 10-campus system.  Carbone has been the focus of 25 complaints in the last year and a half alone, representing about half the researchers and professors at the Cancer Center, according to Kristeen Hanselman, associate executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the union representing UH faculty statewide.

"The UH Manoa's Chancellor's office has needed to repeatedly involve itself in attempted resolution of these grievances, because the pattern is that Director Carbone's administration does not resolve them," Hanselman said.

Carbone has been accused of putting derogatory materials in faculty members' personnel files to harm their reputations and of removing one researcher from an $8 million dollar grant without even notifying him, the union said.

According to summary of grievances filed against Carbone, UHPA also claimed he lied in responding to some faculty complaints and had personal mail by researchers improperly intercepted by his office. Eight to ten Cancer Center faculty members have cited a "hostile work environment" there, with formal complaints filed in some of the cases, UHPA said.

Carbone has told people at the Cancer Center that UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, Carbone's boss, tried to fire him, but Apple was unsuccessful.

Sources said at a meeting Monday of the Cancer Center Consortium, Apple laid out his reasons why Carbone should be terminated, saying mismanagement and overspending were Carbone's two biggest problems.

At that meeting, sources said, Carbone was defended by Maui State Sen. Roz Baker, who's a cancer survivor and longtime center supporter as well as some current and former hospital executives who serve on the consortium.

Reached by phone, Apple declined comment because this is a personnel matter. Carbone is out of town and, through a UH spokeswoman, also declined comment.

But in May, Carbone told Hawaii News Now he wasn't worried the number of personnel complaints filed against him.

"I don't think it will scare people from working here.  I think that no where else in the world such complaints would have been filed and no where else in the world would they have been considered. That's for sure," Carbone said in a May 29 Hawaii News Now story that detailed four academic freedom complaints that UH officials decided in favor of faculty members who'd accused Carbone of improper treatment.

Baker did not return a phone call and email for comment. A UH spokesperson said the university does not speak publicly on personnel matters.

Art Ushijima, president and CEO of Queen's Health Systems who chairs the consortium board, declined to comment, according to a spokesman.

Sources said Apple has told people he tried to fire Carbone in June but was over ruled by then-UH President MRC Greenwood, who has since stepped down.

UH officials were quietly floating the idea of bringing in former UH Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw as an administrator at the Cancer Center to work with Carbone.  Hinshaw hired Carbone over the wishes of an overwhelming majority of the center's faculty members. She was a strong supporter of his until she stepped down as chancellor of the flagship Manoa campus and took a job at the UH Medical School.

In a statement, UH said: "We are currently working on a plan to strengthen the center and make it even more responsive to the needs of our people in the fight against cancer."  The UH said details would be announced "as soon as possible."

Sources said Apple stopped Carbone's attempt to hire a relatively young and inexperienced assistant professor as the center's associate director and pay her $300,000 a year.  Apple called the salary "outrageous," noting it was more than Greenwood's salary in her new position at the UH medical school. Apple told people the salary was too high for the woman who had just three years ago been a grant manager at the Cancer Center.

The center has gone through a "revolving door" of administrators and fiscal officers because Carbone was difficult to work with, sources at the Cancer Center said.

Hanselman, of the faculty union, said UH administrators need to be free from outside influence.

"This is a UH problem.  And they do have the autonomy.  And they need to be given the autonomy without outside interference to make the decisions that are necessary for them to manage their executive personnel," Hanselman said. "We will be pursuing any avenue we think is appropriate if we find that the employment relationship between our faculty members and the university is being threatened or harmed in any way by incursions or inappropriate activities by persons or organizations outside the Cancer Center."

Reached by phone, John Holzman, chairman of the UH Board of Regents declined comment Thursday, referring Hawaii News Now to Lynne Waters, the spokeswoman for the UH system.  "We speak with one voice on this," said Holzman, who attended Monday's consortium meeting.

A statement from the UH did not refute Hawaii News Now's description of Apple's attempt to fire Carbone.

Hawaii News Now asked, "Are there any plans to bring in other administrative staff to help with management of the Cancer Center?  If so, why?"

UH's entire answer was this: "The University of Hawaii Cancer Center is one of the most important programs of the university, the Cancer Center Consortium, and the state of Hawaii. We are currently working on a plan to strengthen the center and make it even more responsive to the needs of our people in the fight against cancer. Details will be made available as soon as possible. Until then, we appreciate the support of our partners in the consortium, the legislative and executive branches, and the many fine staff and researchers who work there."

Even supporters of Carbone have expressed concerns about other problems at the center, such as mismanagement and "violations" in the clinical trials unit and a lack of researchers being recruited at the center, sources said.  One important grant may be in jeopardy because a grant writer didn't understand there were new guidelines, sources added.

UH has not responded to a five-month old request from Hawaii News Now for information about Carbone's travel expenses, salaries and job titles of Cancer Center administrators as well as details about construction problems with the new facility.  HNN's request was first made July 3.  HNN has received no information or answers to its 35 questions since then.

A previous investigation by Hawaii News Now in May revealed the center was paying about $1 million a year in rent for space at the former Gold Bond Building that's nearly a third empty just two blocks away from the center, which was still about 25 percent unfilled.

HNN also reported May 28 that Carbone, who was then paid $391,416 a year as the fourth-highest paid administrator in the UH system, had no employment agreement with UH more than a year after he had asked for one.  In May, Apple told HNN: "The fact that Dr. Carbone has not been offered a reappointment contract is not an oversight.  His reappointment is being actively discussed."

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