News | Administration

NIH data complicates Mailman funding disputes

  • STUDENTS WANTED | Faculty say that a fall in student enrollment in the sociomedical sciences department was due to fewer faculty available to teach.
  • EXPENSIVE | The Mailman School of Public Health's tuition increased by 7.6 percent last year, the largest percentage increase among all schools at Columbia.

Updated, May 2, 2014 at 4:38 p.m. A version of this article appeared in print on May 2, 2014.

It started with two emails sent to sociomedical sciences professors Kim Hopper and Carole Vance in February, saying that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the year.

After finding out about the two professors’ layoffs, students started petitioning for the professors’ contracts to be renewed. Called Un-Occupy Mailman, the movement has since turned students and faculty at the Mailman School of Public Health against administrators, saying the University is not doing enough to address the department’s and the school’s increasingly alarming budget concerns.

Hopper said in an email that he believed the non-renewal wasn’t a personal issue. “It’s an institutional one,” he said. “And the nub of the issue is the financial formula used to provision the SMS department.”

Mailman, like many public health schools around the country, is a “soft money” institution that largely relies on grants instead of tuition or donations to fund faculty salaries. But students and faculty are concerned that such a funding model is not sustainable.

“I don’t think that the model as it is can persist, at least not without some sort of support from downtown,” Amy Fairchild, the former chair of the SMS department, said. “We’re a hybridized tribe, with one foot in the Morningside campus and the other in the Medical center. … And that hybridity is what makes us a poor fit for a medical school-style funding formula, where clinical researchers routinely raise their salaries through public and private grants and hospital duties.”

Public funding

SMS faculty have pointed to decreasing federal funds as one of the drivers of the school’s financial concerns. Data from the National Institutes of Health, one of the organizations that provide grants to schools like Mailman, however, show that the amount of money received by sociomedical sciences-affiliated professors at Mailman has fluctuated, but not decreased.

In 2013, Columbia University Health Sciences and Medicine, which includes Mailman as well as the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the School of Nursing, and the College of Dental Medicine, received $305.4 million in NIH grants. Out of that amount, 2.4 percent, or $7.4 million, went towards projects led by SMS faculty at Mailman.

While the total amount of NIH funding to Columbia decreased by $9 million from 2012 to 2013, the amount given to projects led by SMS faculty is at a recent-high—in 2012, department faculty members who are still at Columbia received $6.2 million in funding after recovering from a low of $3.98 million in 2011.

The NIH is only one of the institutions that provides grants to Columbia, but other sources of funding, such as the National Science Foundation, could not be analyzed to isolate sociomedical sciences-affiliated grants.

CUMC spokesperson Douglas Levy said that the amount of funding Mailman will receive in 2014 could not be accurately estimated due to numerous variable factors, but added that the school did not expect major differences from prior years and are on track for what the school would typically receive.

Opaque finances

Faculty and staff, however, are complaining about being locked out of funding conversations as concerns escalate about the transparency of the school’s finances.

At a March 26 assembly, Vice Dean for the Academic Advancement and professor of clinical biostatistics Roger Vaughan presented a budget of Mailman that showed that the school was not meeting its goal of having a three percent financial surplus, which acts as a cushion in case of funding shortages. When faculty members asked for further information regarding the finances, they were refused.

“There is a premium, limiting the extent to which financial data is made public and I and my colleagues have challenged that and we think it’s possible to have a much more transparent conversation,” Ronald Bayer, a tenured SMS professor, said. “After all if you want people to make sacrifices, if you want them to say we have to tighten our belts to do X, Y, and Z you have to know what the story is.”

Bayer is co-chair of a faculty steering committee, which was recently established to investigate alternative sources of funding for faculty salaries at Mailman. The committee is expected to deliver a report next week to the administration outlining concerns of the faculty.

Faculty members are also upset at the lack of response to their petitions urging the administration to retract the nonrenewal letters of Vance and Hopper, which now include over 500 signatures from public health students and faculty nationwide. The involved faculty delivered the petitions a second time on April 26 to University President Lee Bollinger, Provost John Coatsworth, and Mailman Dean Linda Fried.

“We’ve delivered them twice now, we’ve updated them. We’ve resubmitted updated versions last week and not a single one of the parties have even acknowledged that they have received them,” Lesley Sharp, an anthropology professor at Barnard and a senior research scientist in SMS, said. “I just think it’s normal protocol to at least drop someone a note, a letter, make a phone call and say, ‘Thank you for your letter, we will take it under consideration.’ They just have to do something like that at least to let people know that they got them. Isn’t it the professional thing to do?”

High Expectations

Sociomedical sciences faculty at Mailman say that the current financial structure of the school, which expects faculty members to raise up to 80 percent of their salaries through outside grants, is becoming increasingly unrealistic and unsustainable with the decrease in available federal funds.

“The students are correct in pointing out that requiring faculty members to fund 80 percent of their salaries through external grants is unbelievable at an educational institution,” Vance said in an email in February.

Faculty say that the pressure to draw in more outside funding is conflict with rising demands from the administration to teach classes. Fried said in an interview that tenured faculty would be expected to teach more in coming years.

Sharp noted the unfeasibility of having to teach three or four courses while searching and applying for grants.

“The tenured faculty can’t teach any more than they already do,” Sharp said. “If you just do the math: If you are supposed to bring in a grant that’s paying 80 percent of your salary and you’ve made the argument to a funding agency that you need this money to sustain you so that you can do your research, then you either have to lie in reporting, you have to commit fraud, or you are supposed to be one and a half people. It can’t add up to a 100 percent and you still can teach.”

Bayer said that he recently started teaching two courses, after having taught only one course for years. He underscored that the expectations put on him and the other SMS faculty would be unheard of on the Morningside campus.

Fried, however, said the teaching expectations on the two campuses were comparable.

“The expectation that the faculty in that department has agreed on is that primarily they are teachers, just like downtown,” Fried said. “Downtown, the teaching expectation for tenured faculty vary from department to department but generally it’s four to five courses taught a year for a full time tenured faculty member. It’s not different up here.”

Still, students said that the current model creates a system that doesn’t prioritize teaching.

“We have had so many excellent teachers at this school—Hopper and Vance are two of the greatest—so our concern is the structural issues that might be preventing them from actually being able to carry out that teaching—the lack of time, the lack of financial support. When you have a structure where teaching is not rewarded, I think inevitably it’s going to suffer,” Kathleen Bachynski, a fourth-year SMS doctoral student, said.

A Shrinking Pool

External funding, however, isn’t the only concern for faculty members. From 2011 to 2012, student enrollment in the sociomedical sciences department at Mailman dropped by 30 percent, from 121 M.P.H. and Ph.D. students to 82. Fairchild said the cause of the decline was a lack of adequate faculty in the health promotion and disease prevention track—which she said was because of the tough funding requirements of the school.

“There had been faculty in that area who had been going off to other institutions where there was more hard money support, so we had lost some of those faculty members over time because of the increasing pressure on people to raise their own salaries,” Fairchild said. “Most of our students were coming into health promotion, and we simply didn’t have the faculty members to support their education. So we needed to cut back on students in that particular track in order to ensure that we weren’t overwhelming two faculty members with forty students.”

The decline in student enrollment has meant a loss in tuition money gained from master’s students at Mailman. At the same time, the tuition of M.P.H. students at Mailman has also been rising rapidly, from $40,980 in the 2012-13 academic year to $44,100 in the 2013-14 academic year. This 7.6 percent increase in tuition in the last year is the highest increase among all schools at Columbia—most other schools’ tuitions only increased between four and five percent during the same timeframe.

In response to the decline in the number of students in 2012, current SMS chair Lisa Metsch said, “As with any academic operation, enrollment fluctuations from year to year can occur. Department chairs budget accordingly. Overall, sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School has maintained a consistent upward trend of student enrollment.”

The data show that SMS enrollment declined for two years in a row from its 2010 high point of 126 students to its low of 82 students 2012, before jumping back up to 119 in 2013.

Nature of the discipline

David Johns, an SMS doctoral student, said that decreasing funding from grant-givers poses a particular challenge for the sociomedical sciences department because disciplines within the department, such as sociology and anthropology, are not traditionally well-funded by organizations like the NIH.

“The school is reliant on money and the times are tough and we absolutely recognize that, but the response has been to fire teachers who were less successful at getting grants—often teachers who do kinds of research that is harder to get funded,” Johns said.

Hopper specialized in public mental health, while Vance works on integrating sexuality into human rights frameworks.

Fried, however, said that it was a myth that the SMS department has a more difficult time getting grants.

“Across the United States, I have worked with the most eminent social scientists who are funded by NIH and have spent their whole careers as eminent scholars. So this myth that those kinds of national funding are not available to social sciences and public health is not true,” Fried said. “I have partnered with great social scientists who are no less able to get NIH grants than I was and I’m a pretty good scientist.”

Still, Fairchild said that faculty in all the departments have felt the squeeze of finances, but that her department has felt it more so because of the nature of the discipline.

“One of the disadvantages SMS has, having a lot of social sciences faculty who, frankly, like historians, are simply not going to be getting NIH grants,” she said. “Because we are social sciences, because department has historically been and continues to be committed to having a wide range of the social sciences in SMS.”

Lesley Sharp, an anthropology professor at Barnard and a senior research scientist in SMS who  does qualitative work and works with small data sets, echoed Fairchild’s remarks.

“The kinds of funding that Mailman wants to court, those pools of money are not only shrinking but they are only allowing for a rather select assortment of projects,” Sharp said. “The kind of work I do, it wouldn’t be funded. I wouldn’t survive there.”

Fairchild said if the current financial pressures continue, Mailman and other schools of public health could fundamentally change.

“What I see the future will be is that there will be a day where there won’t be historians at a school of public health,” Fairchild said. “There’ll probably be very few anthropologists and you’ll have enough faculty overtime that’s going to be very responsive to what the NIH is funding, but not necessarily very responsive to what is required by the broader field of public health.”

Eva Kalikoff contributed reporting.

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Kathleen Bachynski's class year and misspelled Roger Vaughan's first name. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story said that Hopper's quote came from email in February. Spectator regrets the errors.

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Anonymous posted on

I think drawing conclusions from the NIH data alone is kind of silly. That Columbia's overall amount of funding dropped 9 million from 2012 to 2013 seems irrelevant and there was no account for why funding might have been low in 2011. Did any big projects end? I know that the RPG rate was especially low that year, as well. Also NIH RePORT shows Columbia's awards a around only 100 million

And the student fluctuations seem quite normal, as well. Not sure there's a story here, or if so you certainly didn't tell it well.

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Anonymous posted on

Of the people that Fairchild left for other institutions, when did they leave? Does that actually relate to the NIH funding decrease or decline in student enrollment? Were any of them in similar situations as Vance and Hopper and were asked to leave?

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Anonymous posted on

*Fairchild said

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Public Health Student posted on

The 7.6 percent increase in masters student tuition in such a short time really is stunning. Where are all those tuition dollars going, if grants are primarily supporting faculty salaries and research activities?

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Anonymous posted on

I don't know percentages, but tuition is in part used to pay rent. Rent includes everything from the building that houses the school to the fees/taxes MSPH pays to Columbia University. In times of budget issues among soft-money programs and in light of billions of added donations to Columbia's platinum-lined coffers, I wonder if the conversation should turn to a review of the fees exchanged between the schools to ensure they are, for lack of a better word, fair.

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Anonymous posted on

only 3 corrections. Great reporting and fact-checking!

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Anonymous posted on

The overall enrollment to the SPH has skyrocked over 20% in the last few years. Hasn't the increase in tuition dollars made up for some of the expenses?

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Anonymous posted on

Except for Harvard (Miliken) and Johns Hopkins (Bloomberg), that have each received multimillion dollar donations in the last few years, most public health schools struggle, even if their affiliated med school is top notch. Bloomberg has personally kept Johns Hopkins afloat with donations in the hundreds of millions. Mailman should be looking for a similar big donor.

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