Professor files grievance: ‘It’s at the heart of integrity’

A USF professor filed a grievance with the University last week because of two things: integrity and the non-existent opportunity for students to participate in research.

When he started at USF in 2002, Larry Branch, professor in the Florida Mental Health Institute, College of Public Health and College of Medicine, came with the understanding he would get $300,000 in startup funds.

Now – seven years later – he still hasn’t received them. In the grievance, Branch requests all the money that was in his initial contract.

Branch, who specializes in research of health care needs for elderly people, said startup funds are usually used to hire graduate assistants and doctoral students. Students use the experience to conduct their master’s thesis and dissertation.

But without those funds, that opportunity isn’t there.

Branch began as dean of the USF College of Public Health. Less than five months into the job, he was “relieved of his duties” by Robert Daugherty, then-vice president for Health Sciences, who is no longer at USF.

“Which was a little bit of a frustration because I was told by (Daugherty) that he had never read my curriculum vitae and he probably should have,” Branch said.

Dr. Steve Klasko, Daugherty’s replacement, was unavailable for comment.

“I am assured that it was brought to the president’s attention and she declined,” Branch said.

USF spokesman Michael Hoad said in an e-mail that the University does not comment on grievances.

Hoad said this issue will go through the University’s normal grievance procedures for faculty members, which will include a reviewer to “gather information and make a finding.”

“Everyone who files a grievance has a right to a fair hearing through that process,” Hoad said.

Branch said he did not have specific research plans to use the funds. He anticipated using them for public health issues, as well as elderly people.

“I’m coming to a new school and I don’t know where the strengths are and where the weaknesses are, and that’s why you get startup money to try and jump-start the weak areas,” Branch said.

One of those areas is aging research, Branch said.

“The College of Public Health – they really need some focus on aging,” Branch said. “There are a lot of students who have an interest in older people and aging but there’s just not a critical focus and there’s no support for them.”

Branch said students send him their curriculum vitas hoping to get hired. About three to five graduate students a year inquire about that opportunity, he said.

“That’s what graduate students do,” Branch said. “They hope that a professor can hire them and then they learn the field while working and doing research.”

Branch left $90,000 in research funds at Duke University to come to USF. He brought with him a grant of about $100,000.

USF’s policy allows all new faculty members who bring grant money with them to also receive “indirect money” from the University, Branch said in his letter of grievance.

Based on his grant used for diabetes-related vision problems, Branch should have received $24,079.47 in indirect money under the policy. Indirect money is used for library fees, and human resource fees if hiring individuals is necessary, among other things.

“So I left the $90,000 and was promised $300,000 and didn’t get anything,” he said. “But what’s more troubling to me is that smaller amount because that’s a much clearer thing. That was a policy that existed at USF for everyone. That was not specific to me at all, and to not honor a policy that existed for everyone is extremely troubling to me because for me it’s at the heart of integrity.”

In his letter, Branch said he should have received $100,000 from the Health Science Center in its Office of Research, $100,000 from the College of Public Health and $100,000 from the Health Science Center Vice President’s Office.

The College of Public Health provided him $100,000, but Branch was holding those funds in a reserve until he received the remaining money. However, when he was removed as dean, that money was rescinded.

Branch said University officials told him the funds were only meant for his position as dean.

But Branch disagrees.

“There’s a rule of law that says if there’s a contract dispute, the one who wrote the contract is assumed to be at fault,” Branch said. “This is their letter. If they meant to say, ‘Oh, you only get to use it as dean,’ that’s not what they said. So, even if that’s what they were trying to say, they didn’t say it.”

In a 1999 case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that “Under a well-established rule of construction, we are constrained to construe the provisions of the … contract against its drafter.”

Branch publicly announced his grievance with the University at the Faculty Senate meeting Wednesday. Since then, he said several people have shared similar stories of someone not receiving promised startup funds.

“So, it has dawned on me that I may try and find out how many people at USF feel that the commitments made to them in their offer letters were not met, and I suspect that we might have a lot because you know things are not isolated,” Branch said.

In his letter of grievance, Branch requests the $24,079.47 in indirect money to be provided – including interest. He also requests the $300,000 in startup funds be provided including interest over the seven years because it was “inappropriately kept” from him.