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Firing of UCSF dean a climax to years of disputes over finances

Although tensions had been building, faculty is shocked at the decision.

December 16, 2007|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — On Monday, three days before his ouster as the dean of UC San Francisco's prestigious medical school, Dr. David A. Kessler met with the university's chancellor for his regular weekly meeting. The two discussed such routine matters as spending on telemedicine programs and whether to bring medical students home from Uganda in light of an Ebola outbreak there.

"It was 100% cordial and productive," Kessler said in an interview Saturday. "It was two colleagues working together."

On Thursday, attorneys from the university handed Kessler, a high-profile former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a letter saying he was fired.

The decision shocked faculty members and even some of the dean's confidants, but it followed nearly three years of increasingly bitter disputes between Kessler and top university officials about accounting practices at the medical school and whether Kessler was misled about the school's finances during his 2003 recruitment.

The dispute, while highly technical, goes to the heart of the top-ranked medical school's ability to remain competitive. The money set aside for the dean's use allows the school to recruit prominent faculty, augment educational offerings and launch innovative research.

Based on financial data he was given by officials in 2003, Kessler said, he expected to have tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue at his disposal than he actually did. UC San Francisco officials say Kessler was not misled and that he was never promised specific funds.

In the end, Kessler, who gained fame nationally as FDA commissioner by seeking curbs on tobacco marketing, was fired by the man who wooed him to San Francisco, Chancellor Dr. J. Michael Bishop, a renowned immunologist and Nobel Prize winner.

In June, Bishop asked for Kessler's resignation, saying he wanted new leadership at the medical school, but Kessler refused to leave. The dean said he was hoping to come up with a solution. But Thursday, during a confidential mediation session, Kessler was let go from his post, which carried a $540,000 annual salary.

"It's very surprising to me that we have two people of great talent and high integrity and tremendous goodwill and that we're in this position," said Dr. Shaun R. Coughlin, director of UC San Francisco's Cardiovascular Research Institute, on Saturday.

John S. Greenspan, director of the university's AIDS Research Institute, agreed. "A lot of the discussion is going to be, 'We jolly well wish that whoever could have stopped this from happening had done so, so that we didn't lose David,' " Greenspan said. "I don't know whether that's the chancellor's level or the dean's office or systemwide."

During a three-hour interview Saturday at a San Francisco-area hotel, Kessler described the behind-the-scenes tension that he said led to his termination. He pointed to three actions he took that he believed may have played a role.

First, in April, he sent an e-mail to a university lawyer accusing the UC auditor of "obfuscation or worse." Then, he said, he provided a UC regent, whom he would not name, with documentation to support his allegations of financial improprieties. And finally, he called a meeting in April to share information about the financial position with medical school chairs and senior school leaders.

"It was clear that the university did not like us doing this," Kessler said, referring to the chairs meeting. "The chancellor was very upset."

Kessler shared with The Times memos, spreadsheets and letters to university officials -- some of which allege a coverup -- that demonstrate his increasing frustration as he tried to understand the truth about his school's finances, something he said should not have been difficult at a public institution.

"What are you supposed to do when there are fewer resources available than you were told? You're trying to run a world-class institution and you know that if it keeps on going at the rate it's going, you're going to fall off a cliff in a few years," he said.

In a news release issued late Friday, UC San Francisco acknowledged firing Kessler and said two reviews, one by a group of senior university officials and another by an outside auditor, found that the School of Medicine is "in very strong financial condition."

Bishop was not available for comment Saturday, said university spokeswoman Corinna Kaarlela, but in three separate written statements released late in the day, officials from UC San Francisco and the University of California continued to defend their actions in light of Kessler's accusations.

"I personally reviewed the facts and circumstances underlying the dismissal of Dr. Kessler," UC General Counsel Charles F. Robinson said in a statement. "I can state unequivocally that I would have intervened to prevent his dismissal had I concluded the decision was motivated by retaliation for Dr. Kessler's prior complaints about the School of Medicine's finances."

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