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Ethics investigator quits in protest

Committee chairman says MU should have acted sooner and been more open to clear researchers.
Sunday, February 11, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:42 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Phil Harter, MU’s Earl F. Nelson professor of law, resigned his position as chair of MU’s standing committee on research responsibility Thursday. The resignation came on the same day MU announced it had dropped the charges of research misconduct against three scientists.

Harter said he left the position because of the way MU handled the announcement that the charges were dropped. The issue came to a head, he said, over an open records request filed by the Missourian.

Harter said MU knew in mid-January that lead researcher Michael Roberts and fellow researchers Mayandi Sivaguru and Hwan Yul Yong had been cleared of any wrongdoing. The case stemmed from suspected doctored photos that accompanied research published a year ago in Science magazine.

Roberts received a letter from Provost Brian Foster clearing him of the charges Jan. 17.

The school should have made a public announcement clearing the researchers more quickly, Harter said. Instead, the university kept that information under wraps for almost a month, he said, leaving the scientists’ reputation hanging in the balance.

“Here I was, part of something that I’ve opposed all this time,” Harter said.

“I have dedicated my professional life to balancing open government with the appropriate use of confidentiality. The administration was only looking at half that equation,” he later wrote in an e-mail.

David Russell, chief of staff for the University of Missouri System, said MU did not release information regarding the dismissal of charges because it was a “personnel matter,” an exemption provided under Missouri state statutes.

Harter doesn’t agree that it is a personnel matter. And, even if it were, he said, MU has already broken its own rules.

“There were stories about Roberts being printed last fall, and now they’re saying it’s a personnel issue?” Harter said. “I just don’t agree.”

He also objected to MU’s response to an open records request filed by the Missourian on Jan. 31 for correspondence among Harter and other members of the committee.

When MU provided the records, names and other facts had been blacked out. One of those blacked-out sections, Harter said, redacted the name of the magazine that first published the research under investigation.

“When they cut out my reference to Science magazine, I said, ‘Wait a minute. There is no question who this is or what it is about. What are they trying to hide?’” Harter said.

Robert Hall, associate vice chancellor for research and director of compliance, said MU’s response to the dismissal of charges in January was aligned with UM’s Collected Rules and Regulations.

“There had to be a number of issues that had to be confirmed,” Hall said. “Not the least of which was to communicate with the individuals involved. And that takes time. The university is a big, awkward organization. And to make sure that everyone is on the same wavelength and that everyone is involved takes time. It doesn’t just happen instantaneously.”

Finding a replacement for Harter will be a quick process, Hall said.

Chancellor Brady Deaton will appoint a chair pro tem to the committee. The committee will then vote on a new chair.

Deputy Provost Ken Dean said he could not comment on how MU handled the dismissal of charges against the researchers.

“Everything about that ongoing investigation, when you read the rules, it’s confidential,” he said.


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