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 episode cost the university millions of dollars in lost revenues and was a significant blow to its national reputation. To correct the problem, Krugman instituted new procedures that went well beyond FDA requirements and imposed new burdens on researchers, which were quickly characterized as "unfunded mandates" from the dean's office.

"The bottom line was that there was a contraction of support and a massive enlargement of paperwork and regulatory demands we had to meet," says Jones. "When I went to the hospital for support, I was told I needed to do less research and cut down on my overhead so that I could be more cost-efficient. My view was that was incompatible with what I was at the institution to do."

The aftermath of the FDA flap was a strong factor in Jones's decision to leave the Health Sciences Center two years ago. He and Elizabeth Shpall, his wife and co-director of the program, are now at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which receives $130 million in annual support from the State of Texas. "It's a night-and-day difference," he says. "Here there's a deep understanding of the kind of administrative support needed to do this."

Infectious-diseases division head Robert Schooley
Infectious-diseases division head Robert Schooley

Four more key figures in the bone-marrow unit have since left; two are now running a private transplant program at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital. The HSC's nickel-and-diming of research projects cost the center a profitable and prestigious program, Jones says.

"Transplants should be very profitable for most hospitals," he notes. "There were bad business decisions made, and something that could have been a real cash cow became something else.... The bone-marrow transplant unit was, in certain respects, like the canary in the mine. There are a lot of activities that don't get supported by NIH grants, where an investment on the institution's part is amply paid off over the years. They made millions of dollars in profits that they could use for supporting indigent patients and other money-losing programs. When they took away the support, it cost them a great deal."

The 2002 firing of Schrier, chair of the Department of Medicine for 26 years, raised even louder protests about the HSC's direction and leadership. Krugman has staunchly defended the decision, saying that it was "time for a change." In a federal lawsuit seeking damages, Schrier has claimed that his dismissal was a result of the concerns he'd expressed about the financing of the move to Fitzsimons and its impact on ICR funds.

Schrier, who still teaches and does research at the HSC, declined to comment for this article, citing the pending litigation. But in a column he wrote for a department newsletter shortly before his removal, he noted that half of the ICR money that the Department of Medicine had previously used for recruitment and other purposes -- $800,000 a year -- was now being appropriated to help build research space at Fitzsimons. (According to HSC officials, roughly 16 percent of total ICR revenues is now being used for debt service at Fitzsimons, and that percentage could rise to as high as 25 percent in coming years.) He also noted "several other issues" regarding the operation of a split campus and the projected $300 million in bond debt that the HSC would be shouldering for the move. If his department couldn't afford to recruit enough top-drawer, research-funded faculty to keep building the ICR pot, he wondered, how would the debt ever be addressed?

A kidney specialist with an international reputation and the lead investigator in grant programs worth millions of dollars, Schrier had numerous allies at the medical school. His unceremonious removal may have hastened the departure of others. Faculty leaders warned that the shabby treatment of such a distinguished chair would make it difficult to attract a replacement of similar stature. (Serious accreditation problems in neurosurgery, orthopedics and other departments, the result of internal feuding or underfunding, didn't help matters.) Indeed, the search dragged on for almost two years, making long-term planning difficult and frustrating division chiefs.

"It's hard to recruit without a permanent chairman," says Michael Bristow, co-director of CU's Cardiovascular Institute, who recently stepped down as chair of the cardiology division. "You certainly don't want to leave a major research department without leadership for any significant period of time."

Officials vowed to conduct a vigorous search for a new chair of medicine, one that would consider outstanding external and internal candidates. Robert Anderson, a professor of internal medicine, was named the department's interim chair. It was the search committee's initial understanding that Anderson himself was not a candidate for the permanent post; although well-respected, his credentials hardly compare with those of Schrier, who's authored more than 800 articles and 45 books, won numerous awards and helped to bring thirty endowed chairs to the HSC over the past three decades.

Two weeks ago, the HSC finally announced Schrier's replacement: Robert Anderson, the only remaining candidate after months of delays in the selection process.

Escorting a visitor through soon-to-be-occupied lab space on the upper floors of Research Complex 1, Chester "Chip" Ridgway pauses to demonstrate the versatility of a single chest of drawers. The thing can be stored under a table, he notes, or wheeled out and transformed into a desk. Or a bench. Or God knows what.

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