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Answers Elusive in Kessler Firing

17 December 2007 10:52 pm
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Majed/UCSF

Ousted. David Kessler has been fired by UCSF, but the reasons remain unclear.

Key questions remain unresolved in the firing of dean David Kessler by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine last week. Kessler and the university had been at odds over "financial irregularities" Kessler says he discovered shortly after taking the post in 2003.

In a 17 December statement, the university said that Chancellor J. Michael Bishop asked Kessler in June to hand in his resignation by the end of the year. With no resignation forthcoming, Bishop formally dismissed him on 13 December. "The reasons for Dr. Kessler's dismissal ... cannot be discussed, as they represent personnel matters that are held confidential in compliance with University policy and state law," the statement read. As ScienceNOW went to press, the university had not made Bishop or other university leaders available for media interviews.

Kessler and UCSF had a long-running disagreement involving the amount of discretionary money available to him as dean for research and educational initiatives, faculty recruitment, renovations, and other uses. Kessler says there turned out to be far less money flowing into the dean's office than he was led to believe when UCSF recruited him away from his previous post as dean of Yale School of Medicine. At that time, Kessler says, UCSF gave him documents showing a gross income of $46.4 million for the most recent fiscal year (2001-2002), resulting in a $9.9 million surplus for the dean's coffers after expenditures. Kessler says this level of funding--which the university projected would continue in future years--was an important factor in his decision to move to UCSF. "With an income of $46 million, you could do the things you needed to do."

But when Kessler asked Jed Shivers, then vice dean for administration, finance, and clinical programs, to conduct a review in late 2004, the numbers didn't match--even for fiscal years that had already come to a close. For 2001-2002, for example, Shivers's analysis showed income of just $28.3 million and a deficit of $7.8 million, which would deplete the dean's account within a few years. Kessler says he was baffled. "For the same closed year, how can you have two different revenue numbers?"

The answer to that question is devilishly hard to pin down. Shivers, now associate dean of finance and administration at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in New York City, says his financial team at UCSF was never able to square the numbers Kessler was originally given: "To this day, we can't figure out how that data he received could be reconciled to the books of the university." Yet according to statements issued by UCSF, the university auditor completed a report in June that found no financial irregularities; neither did two additional reviews, one by a group of senior financial officers and another by an outside accounting firm.

In 2005, just as Kessler was beginning to delve into the dean's office finances, an anonymous letter surfaced, accusing him of lavish and irresponsible spending. (Auditors later concluded that the allegations were unfounded.) In its 17 December statement, UCSF "categorically denies" that Kessler "was dismissed in retaliation for his allegations about financial irregularities in the UCSF School of Medicine."

Prior to his post at Yale, Kessler was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 1990 to 1997, where he spearheaded a major investigation into the tobacco industry and instituted limits on tobacco advertising directed at children. He plans to retain his post as professor of pediatrics/epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF. The university has named Samuel Hawgood, chair of the department of pediatrics and physician in chief of UCSF Children's Hospital, as interim dean of the medical school.