The Arizona State University management has a systemic corruption problem and the ship is starting to leak. Here’s another example of what happens when a crime boss mentality gets into the leadership of government. The police department, prominent Bio Design scientist, who’s next? Don’t be bullied. Fight back. Document your harassment the best you can, secure tape recordings, get witnesses, written statements, and protect yourself against workplace bullies.
Prominent ASU scientist sues university and President Michael Crow, alleging retaliation
Deirdre Meldrum alleges university officials staged an after-hours raid to take equipment from her lab; ASU administrators say her claims are a diversion to mask a decline in her research funding.
A prominent research administrator and scientist at Arizona State University has filed a lawsuit that accuses school administrators, including President Michael Crow, of abusing their authority, diverting funds intended for her lab and harassing employees who make allegations of ethics violations.
The civil action was filed Feb. 29 in Maricopa County Superior Court by professor Deirdre Meldrum, a university scientist and former dean at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. It echoes and recites many of the allegations Meldrum previously filed in a whistleblower statement and a notice of claim against ASU. Those actions, not previously divulged publicly, were obtained by The Arizona Republic via a government-records request.
The lawsuit includes counts alleging breach of contract, misrepresentation and whistleblower retaliation.
Meldrum, who came to ASU in 2006, said her conflicts began three years after she arrived, when she complained to Crow that research funds and staffing had not been provided as promised in her contract, and that her pay was not commensurate.
“ASU is abusing people and resources for their own benefit,” Meldrum said this week in an interview withThe Republic. “It’s a pattern, and it’s been going on far too long. … I believe a lot of wrong has been done by leaders of the institution. I want them to be held accountable.”
ASU, in a statement, said Meldrum’s allegations are an attempt to divert attention from the real issue: Over the past five years, according to the university, Meldrum’s success in securing research funds has declined “precipitously” — to less than $500,000 in fiscal 2014, and zero in fiscal 2015. At the same time, the statement said, ASU provided her with more than $6 million in funding, 6,000 square feet of lab space and 2,000 square feet of office space.
“We remain hopeful that Dr. Meldrum and her lab will return to the level of success … enjoyed in the first years after she arrived at ASU,” the statement said.
The civil suit names Crow as a defendant along with 12 current or former top ASU administrators and the Arizona Board of Regents, who oversee the state-university system. The Republic reached out to Crow through a spokesman, but he did not respond to an interview request regarding Meldrum’s allegations.
The lawsuit is the latest in a chain of formal complaints filed by Meldrum beginning in 2014, when she sent a whistleblower letter to Gov. Jan Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne. When allegations in that letter were not investigated, Meldrum said, she resubmitted them in January 2015 to newly elected Gov. Doug Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich, as well as to the state Auditor General’s Office.
The 74-page whistleblower letter contains accounts of Meldrum’s six years of conflicts with Crow and other ASU officials, offering far more detail than the lawsuit. At one point, it alleges, university officials staged an after-hours raid to take equipment from her lab.
The lawsuit asserts that ASU breached Meldrum’s contract, made false representations and unlawfully retaliated. It also refers to allegations in her whistleblower letter that Crow has used similar tactics against scores of other professors, administrators and researchers since he became university president in 2002. Her complaint letter listed 172 former ASU employees among the “fallen stars.”
Most have left ASU, and some have assumed prominent positions at other universities.
Photos: ASU Biodesign Institute
Meldrum asserts that she brought in more than $35 million in research grants to ASU, and secured a total of $80 million during her career.
The state universities have a whistleblower policy that prohibits retaliation against employees who disclose information of public concern, including what employees believe are violations of law, mismanagement, gross waste of public monies, or abuse of authority.
Meldrum said none of the officials acted on her whistleblower complaint, instead treating it as a personnel issue.
Mia Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, confirmed the office reviewed the complaint letter and concluded it reflected a personnel dispute over Meldrum’s contract, not a whistleblower report of official misconduct as envisioned by the statute.
“Whistleblower complaints raise a matter of public concern that would otherwise not be known,” Garcia said, adding, “We take whistleblower complaints very seriously, but they have to be an issue of public concern.”
Regents General Counsel Nancy Tribbensee last year sent a letter to Meldrum’s attorney, Daniel Bonnett, asserting that most of the issues raised by Meldrum were moot because she did not report them within 365 days per university policy.
Tribbensee dismissed Meldrum’s more recent claims about allegedly improper financial transactions involving research funds, arguing they “do not appear to … be ‘on a matter of public concern.’ ”
Meldrum alleges that after she began to complain of wrongdoing and retaliation, university officials moved to cut her pay, authority and research operations.
Meldrum remains director of ASU’s Center for Biosignatures Discovery Automation within the university’s Biodesign Institute. The center is investigating cancer cells and diagnoses. Meldrum was notified in September that the center’s budget and lab space will be cut substantially if she does not produce $2 million in additional research grants.
Earlier last year, an ASU news release announced that Meldrum had been inducted as a fellow with the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. It said she has secured more than $35 million in research grants during the past decade, “among the highest individual grant awards in ASU history.”
Recruited as ‘visionary’
Meldrum, a professor of electrical engineering, was recruited to ASU from the University of Washington and touted by Crow as a “visionary” with a “track record of moving science and scientists to the cutting edge of discovery.”
She earlier held jobs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and has led research on topics ranging from genome automation to live single-cell analysis and undersea sensor robotics.
Meldrum’s various legal filings allege that she became a victim of administrative abuse after identifying “irregularities … involving mismanagement and mishandling of finances.”
Meldrum asserts that Crow reneged on a promise to provide $6 million for new engineering research and $5 million for engineering fellowships to attract top-level students. She also claims her pay was substantially below salaries received by other deans.
When Meldrum took those concerns to Crow in 2009, her whistleblower letter alleges, he “closed the door and launched into a 20-minute verbal tirade during which he yelled and threatened her.”
The whistleblower letter alleges that Crow chastised her for asking for a pay raise, declaring, “This will be the most painful dollars you have ever received.”
At the time, Meldrum was dean of ASU’s engineering schools with about 201 faculty and 7,000 students.
In subsequent months, Crow announced that Meldrum was being replaced as dean and named ASU’s “senior scientist,” tabbed to found a new biosignatures lab.
Meldrum contends the maneuver was a demotion in disguise, and that university administrators began a campaign of retribution. In the whistleblower letter, she alleged that Crow “orchestrated her removal as dean of the School of Engineering with unfulfilled promises and false representations while relegating her to a position with the vacuous title of ASU ‘senior scientist.’ ”
During a 2010 meeting with Crow and other administrators, Meldrum alleges in the whistleblower letter, the ASU president rebuked her for complaining that the biosignatures venture was not getting promised support, then explained that “a good part of everything being done at ASU is puffery and papier mache, and that it was their job to support the illusion before it all collapsed on itself.”
Meldrum’s complaint says Crow then asked her to assume a new role helping promote women in science. The whistleblower letter shows she responded angrily in an email, noting that Crow had just stripped her of her title as dean. “This was done against my will, and no explanation was ever offered,” Meldrum wrote. “I was one of the few women deans in engineering in the country …”
“Now, you ask me to help ASU address the national issue of the disappointing participation of women in science and engineering, which I’m a victim of the very system that discourages women from climbing to the top … You have made me a laughing stock on this matter.”
By late 2011, the biosignatures project still had not geared up. Meldrum alleges it was renamed the National Biomarker Development Alliance, and she was not on the leadership team, let alone director.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit alleges that unidentified ASU officials began making unauthorized withdrawals from Meldrum’s research account without notifying her, and concealed or withheld the records.
Meldrum alleges her objections prompted a rebuke from the administration and imposition of “impossible” performance requirements for published articles, grant revenues and work metrics not imposed on other ASU center directors or professors. She also was told she would no longer be ASU’s senior scientist, according to a notice of claim that preceded her lawsuit.
Pattern of abuse?
After Crow arrived in Tempe in 2002, he rebranded ASU as the model for a “New American University” — an institution that would provide broad access to a quality education while conducting research that has meaningful impact on society. The university began aggressively ramping up its research, turning the money and prestige into academic success and economic development.
Under Crow’s direction, ASU expanded its enrollment, academic sweep, scientific enterprises and status. Arizona State became the nation’s largest public university under one president, with 91,000 students. ASU is recognized as a national leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. It has grown to five campuses in the Phoenix area, plus offices throughout the world and a growing online enrollment.
Hiring top-notch faculty with lucrative research grants proved critical to those achievements.
But Bonnett, Meldrum’s attorney, alleged in letters to Ducey and Brnovich last year that Crow had engaged in “a consistent pattern and practice” of recruiting celebrated professors with incentives, “then failing to honor and deliver upon those promises.” The letters said anyone who dared to object would get punished and silenced, or forced out.
Meldrum’s are not the first allegations of this kind to be leveled.
Before and during Crow’s tenure as vice provost at Columbia University, noted mathematical economist Graciela Chichilnisky pursued a series of lawsuits against the New York university for gender discrimination and other torts. Online federal and state court documents show the suits ended with settlements, the most recent during a trial in 2008.
Case files were not immediately available, but Chichilnisky told The Republic that she collected more than $1 million in litigation based on claims of continuing discrimination. She said the dispute began when she questioned substandard pay and working conditions, then escalated into a “toxic” environment during Crow’s tenure.
“They tried to destroy my work,” Chichilnisky said. “He froze my research funds. He sent five movers by surprise and removed all of my books and computers from eight offices. Then they locked the offices and changed the keys.”
Crow declined to comment on the Chichilnisky case, as did an ASU spokesman.
In another lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, ASU professor George “Bob” Pettit in 2005 accused Crow and the university of improperly firing him as director of ASU’s Cancer Research Institute. The civil complaint alleged breach of contract, fraud, conspiracy, defamation and whistleblower reprisal.
Pettit has written more than a dozen books and is considered a pre-eminent researcher, responsible for scores of anti-cancer drugs and patents based on marine life and natural compounds. The National Cancer Institute once described him as an American “treasure.”
Pettit declined comment for this story. But court papers and news articles say Pettit, like Meldrum, got crosswise with Crow over finances and ASU’s handling of intellectual property rights, or patents. In 2005, Pettit was removed as leader of the institute, and 31 employees were terminated.
At the time, ASU said Pettit was demoted because his research funding had dwindled and his lab had been hit with numerous safety violations.
In 2011, Pettit won a federal verdict for part of his case against the Board of Regents — after Crow had been dismissed as a defendant. That decision was overturned on appeal in 2013. Pettit remains a tenured professor at the university, where he has worked for more than a half century.
The money trail
Much of Meldrum’s lawsuit and her whistleblower letter focus on internal ASU politics and legalities involving research funding, leadership, credit and control.
She alleges in the lawsuit that unauthorized university officials transferred large sums of money — nearly $100,000 in one case — without explanation, and refused to disclose where the money went.
The lawsuit also claims Arizona Technology Enterprises, the university’s patenting arm, “colluded” with several former employees “in misappropriating intellectual property from the lab,” an assertion that echoes Pettit’s lawsuit a decade ago.
Meldrum said she was awarded $2 million before her arrival at ASU to work on a project with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute involving robotic efforts to collect and study microbiotic organisms in the ocean. Meldrum’s whistleblower letter described the outcome as “an orchestrated, back-stabbing collusion,” and requested an independent investigation.
After Meldrum was dismissed from the project, according to the whistleblower letter, her lab was entered — apparently on a weekend night — by an employee who removed research equipment and supplies.
In emails to ASU administrators, Meldrum wrote: “You sneak into my laboratory in off hours, you steal my equipment and supplies, and you stash them in a hidden place. What possible explanation can justify these actions?”
University officials answered in emails that the Monterey Bay institute had requested the change of project leadership, and off-hours removal of research gear was just a misunderstanding. Some items were returned.
‘Shell game’ alleged
Meldrum also pressed ASU officials to fulfill funding obligations in her employment contract, which she said included $500,000 for a project known as NEPTUNE, an undersea observatory for research on new microbes along the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate in the Pacific Ocean.
In November 2012 emails that Meldrum sent to then-Provost Elizabeth Phillips, she said financial manipulations were undermining the project.
Meldrum claimed money was shifted into and out of accounts in a way that was “dishonest and tantamount to embezzlement.” In a July 2013 email to Pamela Mulhearn, then director of Biodesign Institute research operations, she alleged that her research work had been shorted $840,000 as a result of a “shell game.”
Meldrum says she was unable to get the transaction records, or to get administrators to investigate. Instead, she was reprimanded by Phillips, who alleged that the “tone” of Meldrum’s email to Mulhearn violated ASU’s ethics code.
According to Meldrum’s lawsuit, ASU officials began imposing performance “metrics” last year that were not in her employment contract and are not imposed on other faculty.
According to the lawsuit, Meldrum was informed if she could not secure at least $2 million in additional grants or contracts by March 1, her office and research space would be reduced dramatically.
In a statement to The Republic, ASU said the cutbacks will not take full effect until 2020, and in the meantime Meldrum “remains an accomplished scientist and tenured member of the faculty, and she will be treated similarly to other ASU faculty members.”
Meldrum’s lawsuit contends the cutbacks are retaliatory.
“They’ve been trying every which way they can to get rid of me,” she said in an interview with The Republic.
“It affects people’s lives and careers. It impacts the reputation and potential success of the institution. … Someone has to speak up and do something about it.”