OHSU Faculty Senate Wants Stronger Voice in Budget Process

Other faculty members believe OHSU has strayed from its mission of basic science and education, while administrators deny that’s the case.

The faculty at Oregon Health & Science University – for the very first time – has stepped forward to publicly share its concerns about how dollars are flowing to their departments. That became apparent when the president of the Faculty Senate, Kristin Lutz, sent a strongly worded letter to OHSU’s board of directors recently. The University has 2,787 faculty members, and 26 faculty sit on the Senate.

“It seems incongruous that the University is doing well financially, when some departments and units are facing cutbacks, static salary support and hiring freezes, all of which negatively affect faculty well-being and productivity,” according to Lutz, PhD, RN, an assistant professor of nursing. “Faculty should be recognized, valued and rewarded equitably for their efforts and their programs supported.”

She also questioned whether faculty compensation is “fair, adequate and equitable” throughout the University, and called for a collaborative approach that “will send a strong message that faculty perspectives and participation are important and valued.”

According to OHSU officials, the letter came out of a yearlong effort to increase faculty engagement, which involved OHSU's Faculty Senate, executive leaders and board. 

"As Dr. Lutz noted, this process, which was formally established by the senate and the board a year ago, included a series of planned meetings and conversations with various leaders, including OHSU’s president, provost and chief financial officer," OHSU said in an email. "Together, they strategized about how best to provide greater transparency around compensation and the budget, among other priorities. The Faculty Senate Letter to the board served as a year-end report, or summary, of their collaborations and accomplishments during the past year, and included senate recommendations for the future. The letter was shared with executive leaders and the board well before the public board meeting."

“Our goal had been to increase communication between the board and the faculty, and, at the same time, the financial budgeting process came together," Lutz said. "We will be looking at how our recommendations are implemented to make sure they become part of the central leadership goals. My letter was never intended to be adversarial or an ultimatum. It was done fully in the spirit of collaboration.”

Lawrence Furnstahl, OHSU’s chief financial officer, welcomed the letter, saying its recommendations were “right on” and he’s eager to partner with the faculty. “There’s no perfect system for budgeting at OHSU. We can always do better. One way we make the most progress is by being transparent. I’m looking for every possible avenue to make sure people feel comfortable sharing their views. I think we’re doing a great deal to keep all channels of communication open in a positive way.”

Faculty Dissent

Yet, not everyone on the faculty is convinced budget decisions are being handled in a fair and equitable manner. In particular, they mention the overhead cost allocation process, where OHSU takes a certain percentage of each department’s funds, including its grant dollars, to run the University.

“On the surface it all makes sense but it’s questionable whether those charges have any real meaning, and most people agree it’s not been done fairly over a longer period of time since different clinical and research departments are charged different amounts,” a faculty member, who was unwilling to share her name for fear of retribution, told The Lund Report.

“Research and financial decisions are also determined in a hierarchical fashion – by the top echelon – without any discussion. Even though committees meet, they lack any decision-making power,” she added. “It’s all a shell game with those in power making the decisions; information is presented but decisions have already been made. Probably fewer than half a dozen people make those decisions – the president, the hospital director, the chief financial officer and the provost.”

Several other faculty mentioned the fear of alienating Dr. Brian Druker, director of the Knight Center Institute, which met the $1 billion challenge issued by Phil and Penny Knight to conduct research to fight cancer.

Recently that facility built a cyclotron to develop the Center for Radiochemistry Research which could produce the radionuclides required for designing new molecular probes for PET scanning.

Because the clinician who heads that center didn’t want to use all of the money raised by the Knight challenge to fund that project, half of the $40 million estimated cost came from OHSU’s general fund, with those dollars generated from hospital profits and the overhead cost allocation charges.

“I’m not blaming the person who recommended doing this but feel that decision should have been discussed by the relevant clinical and research people as to whether this was the right approach. When spending general fund money, it’s important to get expertise and not just from those who have a self- interest but consider what it looks like on balance, and use that information as a basis for making a decision,” a scientist in the Knight Center told The Lund Report. “Just because someone comes and wants something, that route won’t make OHSU a better academic institution.”

Basic science departments are more vulnerable, and research programs are being starved in such a way that there’s little hope of recovery,” he added. “Right now decisions are being made in a small room with a small group of people who have a self-interest, and I don’t see a strategy for excellence.”

Corporate Interests

Faculty also contend OHSU has turned into a corporation with fund raising seen as a sign of success rather than an emphasis on basic research. They pointed to a report from U.S. News and World Reports that ranked OHSU as 31st in terms of research among medical schools around the country in 2016.

The potential affiliation with Moda Health coupled with the $50 million surplus note is another prime example, they said.

Furnstahl countered that assumption, saying OHSU has never been more committed to pursuing its mission of improving the health and well-being of Oregonians and had no intention of becoming a corporation.

“We’ve never been as dedicated to our mission of advancing science, teaching the next generation of healthcare practitioners and scientists, the delivery of patient care in every county in Oregon,” he told The Lund Report.

In 2014, the same concerns erupted, with faculty members feeling that OHSU was pursuing big money grants and straying from its mission of basic science and education. It occurred when OHSU asked the Legislature for $200 million to support the Knight challenge,

Sarah Smolik, a Portland geneticist who left OHSU two years earlier, said its focus had turned toward money and securing donors, at the expense of quality basic science research. “"They've lost a lot of good people up there because of this business model,” she told The Oregonian.

At that time, Furnstahl.said, he was developing a new budgeting system that showed the faculty the university supported their efforts. "If I can say there was one flaw in the budgeting system that we've used, it's that we weren't as clear as we could have been."

It’s unclear whether the new budgeting system took into account the new concerns raised by the Faculty Senate.

Diane can be reached at [email protected].

Editor's note: This article has been edited at the request of officials at OHSU to expand upon the process that led to the drafting and delivery of the Faculty Senate letter.

News source: