Throwing Fitz

The move to Fitzsimons was supposed to send CU's Health Sciences Center sailing into the 21st century. So why are so many doctors jumping ship?

"The clinic isn't going to fall apart, but I don't think we will have quite the priority we've had. Everything depends on getting grants, and if there's a brain drain, the grants aren't going to be there. It's a downward spiral."

Schooley's personal situation is hardly an isolated one; his division has already lost two key researchers because of issues related to the Fitzsimons move. And more than a dozen other heavyweights in various areas of medical research -- men and women whose work has contributed substantially to the Department of Medicine being ranked twelfth nationally in NIH funding, out of 126 such departments -- have left in recent months, taking millions of dollars in research grants with them. The list includes several division chiefs, nationally known experts in liver disease and cardiac electrophysiology, pioneering researchers in cancer and arthritis, and the entire core of the center's bone-marrow transplant unit, formerly a source of tremendous pride and press.

Some of those who've left say that they simply took better jobs elsewhere. Others who've fled, though, say that their departures were a direct result of the turmoil surrounding the Fitzsimons move -- which is "symptomatic," they say, of ongoing problems in the HSC's financing and leadership that have demoralized the medical school's faculty and drained resources from critical programs.

The Health Sciences Center's Denver campus.
Anthony Camera
The Health Sciences Center's Denver campus.
Associate Dean Chester Ridgway
Anthony Camera
Associate Dean Chester Ridgway

"I saw myself at a fading institution," says Ferric Fang, a bacterial geneticist and former member of the infectious-diseases division, now a professor of microbiology at the University of Washington. "On the face of it, the move just looked really foolish. The ostensible reason was that we didn't have enough space, but the departments that were moving were being told they weren't going to get any more square footage than they already had. It was going to cost billions, and nobody would be better off."

HSC officials say that most, if not all, of the faculty objections to the move have been addressed. They insist that Fitzsimons will provide state-of-the-art facilities that will attract "world-class scientists" and give CU a competitive edge in vying for research grants.

"It's so much more expensive to retrofit old space than to build new space," says John Sladek, vice chancellor for research. "If we didn't move, we would have been behind. There's little way we could have built on the old campus and expanded the research possibilities."

Sladek views many of the complaints about "disruption" as exaggerated. "How much disruption can a person handle?" he asks. "Having moved an active research lab twice, I can say this is a whole lot easier. For two or three years, faculty will shuttle back and forth. It's a fifteen-minute drive. It's not an overwhelming problem. Will there be grumbling? Sure. We're faculty. We grumble."

But critics of the move say their misgivings run much deeper than the nuisance of fifteen-minute commutes. They have to do with massive debt, wildly optimistic financing expectations and a raid on the same research coffers that were supposed to benefit from the move; with an imperious administration that has steamrolled faculty since the abrupt 2002 firing of Robert Schrier, the renowned chair of the Department of Medicine, an action related to the battle over Fitzsimons; with the deal that CU made for the sale of the existing campus, which will produce little or no direct financial return to the university for the disposal of a prime piece of Denver real estate; with disrupted programs and an exodus of talent; and much, much more.

From many angles, the ultramodern complex of hospitals, clinics and research towers rising amid the weeds and memories of Fitzsimons is an impressive sight. It's been a windfall for construction companies, and it's eventually expected to generate hundreds of high-tech jobs and serve as the centerpiece for the revitalization of Aurora's faded "downtown." Yet some of the complex's most respected employees say that the move will prove to be far more costly than it appears on paper -- costly in terms of the way it's altering the character of the medical center and the way research is done there.

"They should have started out planning how they were going to stabilize [the move] and keep critical personnel, but that just became an afterthought," says Roy Jones, who left as co-director of the bone-marrow transplant unit two years ago. "Money was invested in bricks and mortar and disinvested in human capital."

The decision to move CU's Health Sciences Center to Fitzsimons dates back to an unharmonic convergence of events a decade ago. Landlocked on its eighty-year-old Denver campus, a gift from Denver Post publisher Fred Bonfils, the HSC was eager to expand onto property it owned west of Colorado Boulevard, despite steadfast opposition from Congress Park homeowners. At the same time, the Army was looking to unload its own historic but outmoded medical garrison in Aurora, which had treated generations of military patients, including President Dwight Eisenhower (heart attack, 1955) and Senator John Kerry (birth, 1943).

Vince Fulginetti, the HSC's chancellor at the time, urged city officials to intervene with neighborhood groups on CU's behalf. Then-mayor Wellington Webb's people declined, denouncing the university's approach to the problem as arrogant and inflexible. Aurora beckoned and, in a collective snit, CU's Board of Regents inked a deal to acquire up to 250 acres of the Fitzsimons site, at no cost -- except, of course, to the City and County of Denver, which will lose thousands of jobs and megabucks in parking fines when the bustling Colorado Boulevard campus shuts down for good.

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