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Faculty Share Blame After Hiring Blunder

By Angeline Wang

A prominent MIT professor will not be disciplined for what was deemed as “inappropriate actions” during the Institute’s failed recruitment of a young female scientist earlier this year. The blame was shared among many faculty and administration, as well as on the competitive relationship between the different neuroscience units at MIT, according to a report released last week by a faculty investigative committee.

In response to the report, an advisory council was created that will oversee recruitment and hirings in neuroscience for the next few years. The report focused on the structure of the neuroscience program at MIT, as well as this specific hiring case. (The report is available at

Nobel laureate and biology professor Susumu Tonegawa, the head of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, was accused in July of bullying neuroscientist Alla Y. Karpova into declining the Biology Department’s offer of an assistant professorship working at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

While the report admonishes Tonegawa for some of his actions during the recruitment process and acknowledges that many believe he is overly competitive, it also states that Tonegawa was, to some extent, provoked by not being included in parts of the search procedure that he should have been. The report also states that the search committee did not carry out all the steps normally expected.

The investigative committee stated in the report that “a number of mistakes were made in the handling of the controversy by faculty members, various faculty members in leadership positions, the Dean of Science, and the Administration.”

Biology Department Head Chris Kaiser and Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey were criticized specifically for failing to adhere to normal hiring procedures. McGovern Director Robert Desimone was also criticized for attempting to influence the decisions of the Biology Department faculty and head.

The report “accurately distributed the blame to several individuals, including myself, as well as to the flawed culture that has developed in the neuroscience program,” Tonegawa said in a statement to the Boston Globe last week. Tonegawa and Silbey were unavailable for comment yesterday.

Kaiser said that he is “happy with the overall tone of the report, because essentially the committee took the stance that mistakes were made but did not harshly blame anyone.” The report “looked to the future,” Kaiser said. “It really is very positive in that sense.”

The allegations against Tonegawa raised concerns about the tensions between the Institute’s neuroscience units. The investigative committee concluded that “the competition and lack of communication among the different neuroscience units, especially Picower and McGovern, have led to a breakdown of this system and is impeding progress in neuroscience at MIT,” the report states.

“Neuroscience at MIT has made important advances in a relatively short period of time,” Reif said in message to the community last week. “It is not surprising that such rapid expansion and intense activity, spread across different academic and research units, have given rise to tensions among the units.”

The report also criticized the existing reporting structure among the neuroscience units, as the McGovern director does not report to the Dean of Science, making it difficult for the dean to resolve disagreements between the groups.

The investigative committee stated in the report that “we find no evidence that gender was a motivation in Professor Tonegawa’s discouragement of Dr. Karpova,” however, “this case nevertheless does have gender implications,” possibly making it more difficult for MIT to recruit new female faculty.

A series of confidential e-mails between Tonegawa and Karpova from May were obtained by the Globe and made public in late July. The e-mails show that Karpova, who was applying for her first faculty position, had considered MIT to be her top choice but was disheartened when Tonegawa described the problems that would arise because of their similar research interests and that “unpleasant competition will be unavoidable.”

The report states that sending discouraging e-mails when the Biology Department Head was deliberating on whether to make an offer and after the offer was made was inappropriate, although informing Karpova that his lab would not collaborate with hers was not.

Conclusions of report debated

The faculty ad hoc committee, which was convened by Reif in July to investigate the incident and the overall structure of the neuroscience programs, interviewed about 50 people, according to committee chair Jacqueline N. Hewitt PhD ’86, director of the Center for Space Research.

The committee sent an invitation by e-mail to all members of the MIT faculty inviting them to speak with the committee, the report states, including individuals involved with neuroscience outside MIT.

“The accounts we heard were complicated, and as we say in our report we made a best effort to reconstruct the events,” Hewitt said in an e-mail. “We undoubtedly will hear from a number of people who would like us to clarify or revise certain points. We are happy to receive these comments and amend our report as appropriate.”

Karpova, who has since accepted an offer to run a lab at Janelia Farm of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said that she felt the committee was too harsh on Desimone. “He NEVER put anything ahead of my well-being,” Karpova wrote in a statement to The Tech. “If there is one person at MIT who was involved in this situation and deserves full praise, it is him.” Karpova declined to comment on other parts of the report.

“The investigating committee was clearly presented with many conflicting points of view, and I don’t envy the difficult position they must have been in,” Desimone said in a statement to The Tech. “However, I am sorry to say that the published report contains factual errors, misstatements, and omissions.”

According to the Globe, biology professor Robert H. Horvitz, who led the faculty search, said that Tonegawa was not excluded early on. “Discussions about correcting these problems are underway,” Desimone said.

Another point of view was brought up by Chi-Sang Poon, a research scientist at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology. Poon, who sent a letter to Reif and the committee yesterday, believes that Tonegawa was himself a victim of discrimination, in this case racial.

The women faculty leadership may also respond to the report, according to Hopkins. The group has not yet had time to discuss the report and decide what to tell the investigative committee.

Hopkins was unsatisfied with the focus of the report. “I thought the issue was about the treatment of a young scientist by a high-level administrator, but that does not seem to have been the focus of this report,” Hopkins said.

In contrast, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Associate Professor Elly Nedivi, who supported Tonegawa during the investigation, was very pleased with the focus of the report, believing that the issue rightly went beyond the specific hiring situation. She said that it emphasized that there are rules for how hiring is done, and that the committee was harshest when people did not adhere to those rules.

Advisory committee established

Reif announced the creation of the Advisory Council on Neuroscience last week. The council will be chaired by Associate Provost Lorna J. Gibson and members of the council will come from the Biology and BCS Departments, as well as the McGovern and Picower research centers. The Dean of Science will also be a member of the council. Gibson was unavailable for comment.

According to Reif, the council will oversee the recruitment and hiring of faculty in neuroscience, will work to “develop a coherent program for neuroscience at MIT” and consider how to encourage collaboration, and will make recommendations regarding the allocation of shared resources. These tasks follow the recommendations of the investigative committee’s report.

After three years, the council’s role and the continued need for the council will be reassessed, Reif said in his message.

Kaiser said he felt that the advisory council is “the best possible outcome that could have come from this” because cross-departmental hires are “a very tricky thing to do,” and that the Biology Department did not have a clear roadmap on how to conduct hires with the McGovern Institute.