UPDATED: UI trustees fire tenured professor over falsified research

 

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CHICAGO — University of Illinois trustees voted Friday to immediately fire a tenured associate professor of cell and developmental biology who admitted that he falsified research in grant applications.

There was little discussion about the firing of Fei Wang, 52, of Champaign, an associate professor in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology. He began at the UI in November 2005 as an assistant professor and was granted tenure in 2012.

The trustees’ action came almost five years after the allegations against him first surfaced and following an exhaustive investigation and hearing process.

The board found that Wang had been "grossly neglectful" in his duties and "can no longer be relied upon to perform (his) university duties and functions in a manner consonant with professional standards of competence and responsibility."

Although the ultimate decision to fire Wang was made by the trustees — minus the student trustees, who don’t vote on tenure — the board gave great weight to the findings of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which did its own investigation and recommended earlier this year that Wang be fired, an unusual move.

Wang filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois last month, three days before the trustees’ hearing into the charges against him, alleging that the investigative process into his then-pending dismissal was flawed. He sought unsuccessfully to block the trustees’ Nov. 16 hearing.

His attorney, Stuart Polizzi of Chicago, said Wang intends to go forward with the wrongful dismissal suit.

"We’re going to talk this weekend about what we’re thinking at this point," Polizzi said. He called the UI’s action an "awful decision" and a massive blow to Wang’s "stellar" reputation as a stem-cell researcher.

Originally from China, Wang received his undergraduate degree from Beijing University in 1988, his master’s in biochemistry from the UI at Urbana-Champaign in 1993, and his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1998.

Wang joins a very short list of tenured UI faculty at Urbana to be dismissed for cause. There have been two others in the last approximately 50 years.

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A nine-page summary report prepared for the trustees about Wang said the investigation into his alleged misconduct began in January 2014.

His department head, Jie Chen, received an email from a Wang colleague alleging he had falsified or fabricated data in a grant application submitted to the National Institutes of Health. Wang’s research focused on human embryonic stem cells.

Chen then began meetings with faculty and students and learned that Wang had submitted in the application for funding "results" from experiments that had never been performed and images that were from mouse cells — not human cells, as he had reported.

Wang was notified in March 2014 that his superiors were on to him, launching a formal investigative process within his department that began a month later. That panel’s final report came in March 2015 with the recommendation that he be fired because he could not be "trusted with conducting academic research and mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral fellows."

Written charges for dismissal were filed by then interim Vice President and Chancellor Barbara Wilson in December 2015, alleging that Wang had falsified research in grant applications to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, destroyed original data, and failed to properly supervise graduate students.

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The UI’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure held hearings in 2016 and 2017, issuing its final report in April 2018. The CAFT report found by "clear and convincing evidence" that Wang committed research misconduct."

Among its findings:

— That in the NIH grant application, Wang submitted images of mouse cells instead of human cells; included results of experiments that had not been done; and included "error bars" on his results that bore no relationship to actual experimental data.

— That Wang falsified data and made false and misleading statements in a 2009 grant application to NSF.

— That at the time of the initial 2014-15 research integrity investigation, he was working with seven doctoral candidates and failed to provide adequate mentorship or guidance on how to maintain laboratory notebooks and the need to record experimental data.

In May 2018, UI President Tim Killeen filed the dismissal charges for the trustees to consider. Wang requested a hearing before the trustees. That was held Nov. 16.

In his defense, Wang claimed that there had been a "failure of due process" in the initial departmental investigation in 2014, a notion flatly rejected by the authors of the summary report presented to the board.

"In all, it has been nearly five years since Prof. Wang’s colleague first raised concerns about Prof. Wang’s misconduct. Since then, Prof. Wang has been involved in three separate review processes consuming thousands of hours of faculty and administrative time. The charges against Prof. Wang have been reviewed multiple times by multiple investigative bodies, including the careful deliberations of this board. Throughout this time, Prof. Wang continued to receive his salary and benefits from the university. It strains reason beyond recognition to argue that Prof. Wang has not received "due process" over these five years," the summary said.

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UI spokesman Tom Hardy said Wang was earning $87,617 at the time of his dismissal.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said a total of $355,000 in grant money had to be returned to various agencies as a result of Wang’s academic fraud.

Two of the nine statewide trustees abstained from the vote, Don Edwards and Patrick Fitzgerald, who weren’t present for the Nov. 16 hearing.

Trustee Stuart King of Champaign said the board approached the dismissal with "a very open mind, without prejudging the situation."

"But after hearing the testimony, it appeared to me that there was clear and convincing evidence that Professor Wang did not conduct himself in a fashion consistent with the excellence that is the faculty at the University of Illinois," King said. "The faculty had thoroughly gone over this."

Killeen said the board retained attorney Chris Wilson as outside counsel to advise trustees on the matter.

Wilson said trustees discussed the case and the "appropriate remedy" with him after the hearing, resulting in the recommendation to dismiss Wang immediately.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).