Editorial: A glimpse of academic 'free agency' at U

  • Updated: April 22, 2008 - 6:23 PM

Allegations of double-dipping reveal competition for professors.

Recruiting isn't just restricted to University of Minnesota athletic teams. While coaches woo talented athletes, the academic side is essentially doing the same, hoping to lure the best and the brightest new professors.

It didn't garner headlines until now, but last fall the university's Academic Health Center had an especially successful recruiting class. In search of marquee faculty for its new bioinformatics programs, officials landed a husband-wife pair of superstars from Georgia Tech. Julie Jacko and Francois Sainfort settled into their Minneapolis offices just after the new year. With them came instant credibility and expertise in an area that university officials say is critical as the school seeks to become a biosciences magnet.

But the couple now find themselves in a dispute with Georgia Tech. The Atlanta school contends that the two never really left and are "double-dipping" by drawing salaries and expense reimbursements from two institutions at the same time. The couple, through their attorney, have said they are eager for the Georgia attorney general's review. General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said the U is looking into the situation.

While it's too soon to draw conclusions about the allegations, the case offers an intriguing glimpse of a rapidly changing academia -- one increasingly modeled after professional sports free agency.

In their world, Jacko and Sainfort are top athletes. Their expertise in a critical, if little understood, field can pull in research dollars, create spin-off companies and lure new ones here. Health-care informatics, at its simplest, utilizes computing power to compile and use health data. It's helped make possible everything from study of the human genome to electronic medical recordkeeping, and plays a key role in identifying hospitals and procedures that achieve the best outcomes most cost-efficiently.

Jacko has written more than 120 research publications and received the highest award given to young scientists and engineers by the U.S. government. Sainfort's areas of expertise include health outcomes modeling and management and medical decisionmaking. His work helps administrators weigh whether to buy new medical technology and is used by policymakers to decide how best to invest tax dollars to prevent disease.

The U rightly recognized the couple's potential. Jacko and Sainfort, though, came at a price. Together, their salaries top $500,000. Are they worth it? Only time will tell.

As universities increasingly rely on research funding, other schools are taking the same competitive approach. Once, administrators nurtured new programs into existence. Now, a rapid return on investment is expected. That requires big-name talent at the get-go. That should generate debate on campuses everywhere. While a few professors earn big salaries in a star-based system, many don't. Nationally, 68 percent of those teaching in college classrooms are not tenure-track professors, compared with 43 percent in 1975.

What's the impact in the classroom and the overall quality of education? How much will universities have to shell out to keep their stars? Like the Jacko-Sainfort case, only time will tell.

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