Now the Star-Ledger has come up with a story of some mind boggling decisions made by the former UMDNJ leadership that seemingly wasted millions on expensive building projects that now stand vacant. The article then concluded with another insightful analysis of what went wrong in the leadership culture of the university, an analysis that may generalize to other health care organizations.
First, let's summarize the blundering building projects. The first was a highly secure site to develop vaccines against biologic terror agents, which is years behind schedule because a UMDNJ leader wanted to relocate it to a piece of land owned by his neighbor. Per the Star-Ledger,
It was known as a Regional Biocontainment Lab.
It was announced in September 2003 by then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thomp son, who hailed it as 'a major step' toward providing effective vaccines and diagnostics for diseases caused by agents of bioterror as well as in fections such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and West Nile virus.
The federal grant stipulated the project be built in Newark's University Heights, adjacent to an existing bioresearch lab operated by UMDNJ.
Memos and e-mails show that within four months, Robert A. Saporito -- then UMDNJ's senior vice president for academic af fairs -- was looking for another site, as university officials grew concerned they would be unable to find matching funds required to build the project.
The search for alternate sites was never disclosed to the public, to the political leaders who secured the money, or to the federal agency that awarded it.
Saporito was forced to resign in March after he was accused of abusing his expense account. In an interview before he left, he said changes in the original design, mandated by security concerns, led to discussions about relocating the lab. He said he explored moving the lab to Picatinny after receiving a call from William Marcellino, a developer who lived a few doors down from him in Brick Township.
When the National Institutes of Health learned about the Picatinny plan last year, the agency was clear: 'We explained to UMDNJ that alternate sites were not an option,' said John J. McGowan, an administrator at NIH.
In an August 2005 letter to the university, NIH officials complained that they had seen little progress on the project and warned 'if you are unable to show the project can be completed, we will need to begin to negotiate the return of funds.'
The next was a cancer center that sits mostly vacant.
The newest building on UMDNJ's Newark campus is a nine-story structure emblazoned with distinctive red signs identify ing it as the New Jersey Medical School/University Hospital Cancer Center.
It includes vast expanses of glass, state-of-the-art research labs, underground vaults for linear accelerators used in cancer treatment, and an outdoor garden for patients.
But no cancer treatment is going on. There are no doctors, no clinical services and no patients. While some researchers have moved in, more than half the building remains empty.
Christopher Paladino, a former university trustee, said there was never a real plan for the cancer center. He said millions were spent without benefit of any economic feasibility studies, or any examination of whether the center would actually bring in patients.
Paladino, named a trustee after the project began, concluded the center had been the product of jealousy between the school's Newark and New Brunswick campuses. In Newark, he said, there was a feeling that because the university has a cancer institute 'in New Brunswick, we should have it here.'
The article documented other expensive buildings that sit partially vacant in lieu of any realistic plans to use the space they provided. In particular,
Adjacent to the cancer center in Newark is a new, six-story building for ambulatory outpatient services completed this year. Walk through this structure, past the cool pastel walls, and there are few people. One level is vacant, as are large parts of the rest of the building.
Since before construction began in April 2003, UMDNJ officials knew they would have trouble down the road because the center was built with tax-free government bonds and money raised that way cannot be used for profit-making operations such as doctors' offices.
'The total confusion on that subject has been the major obstacle,' [Interim UMDNJ President] Vladeck said. 'We're starting to untie that knot.'
Vladeck said the complex was planned and built by people who put off the financial issues, figuring it would be constructed and 'by then, they would have to fix the problem.'
Finally, the Star-Ledger discussed a fascinating analysis of what has gone wrong with the leadership of UMDNJ.
Interviews with past and current officials indicate many projects were a product of a school that increasingly was divided into two worlds the past few years.
In one, nurses and doctors battled to provide health care in a poor, urban environment. But at the top were administrators who got their jobs through political patronage and whose basic job experience was not teaching or medicine, but state government and politics.
Paladino, who was an assistant counsel to Gov. Jim Florio, said political jobs seemed to be part of the lifeblood of the university.
'It's a Sharpe guy. It's a Rice guy. It's a McGreevey guy, or a DiFrancesco guy, he remarked, referring to former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, state Sen. Ronald Rice, and two former governors, James E. McGreevey and Donald DiFrancesco. Everyone has a guy. They don't hide from it.'
It wasn't always evil, he said, but it became a slippery slope as politicians sought comfortable jobs for their political supporters.
U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, who is overseeing a criminal investigation into the university that was launched after a series of stories in The Star-Ledger last year, saw it all as less than innocuous.
"There were people in political life who were in charge of the budget process who made sure UMDNJ got taken care of, because they knew folks could go there and be employed,' said the U.S. Attorney. 'There was a very symbiotic relationship there between the political world and the university.'
He added that his parents once told him character was what you do when you think nobody's watching.
'UMDNJ,' Christie said, 'was the way politicians acted when they thought nobody was looking, and it's a pretty ugly picture.'
So there you have it. One fundamental problem with UMDNJ was that the University was run by people with no background or fundamental interest in health care, who did not share, even at an intellectual level, the values of health care. The leaders treated the country's largest health care university as there own political sand-box, completely disregarding its core mission, and thus completely disrespecting the patients and learners it was supposed to serve, and the health care professionals who tried to serve them.
After the revolution that turned health care over to business people, bureaucrats, and politicans, how many other health care organizations are run for the benefit of their leaders, rather than the missions they were supposed to support?