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Physical Chemistry

Lawsuit and Turmoil at Florida State

Generous chemistry professor is pitted against the university in a building deal gone sour

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
December 12, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 50

For a number of years, Florida State University in Tallahassee has been gunning for a world-class reputation. It established the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory; lured high-powered faculty, including chemistry Nobel laureate Sir Harold W. Kroto, to its campus; and recently opened up a medical school. In 1998, FSU began dreaming of a center for chemistry that would be housed in a new building and populated by the brightest minds in the field.

It was an expensive prospect, but FSU had an ace up its sleeve: Robert A. Holton.

Back in the early '90s, the FSU chemistry professor developed a practical, semisynthetic method of synthesizing the blockbuster anticancer drug Taxol, a process he licensed to Bristol-Myers Squibb. It was a fabulous windfall for the university, generating over $350 million in royalties, distributed among FSU, the chemistry department, Holton's lab, and Holton himself.

Holton and his nonprofit organization, the Molecular Design & Synthesis (MDS) Research Foundation, agreed to donate millions to FSU's new Program for Molecular Recognition, a broad-focused institute with synthetic organic chemistry as its centerpiece.

But five years later, the project was in trouble. The price tag had tripled, nobody could settle on a construction site, and finally this summer, an explosive feud erupted between Holton and FSU's new president, Thomas Kent (T. K.) Wetherell. Fed up with what many observers say was Holton's increasing demands and micromanaging, Wetherell suddenly axed the original project, substituting in its stead an amorphous plan for a general chemistry building and cutting Holton out of the loop. "That declaration came as quite a shock," Holton says.


Then Wetherell announced that FSU intended to keep a large portion of the money MDS and Holton donated to fund the new project.

Holton and MDS have filed a lawsuit against FSU, demanding either that the project proceed as originally planned or that the university return all the donated money.

The fracas has plunged the chemistry department into turmoil, according to several faculty who agreed to speak only if they were not identified. Even as many chemists there wonder what labs and offices will be constructed, who will occupy them, and how this will be paid for, construction workers are breaking ground for the new building.

The conflict has drawn attention to a couple of thorny issues, observers say. One is age-old: the battle of wills, in this case, between a powerful, rich, and assertive professor and a president who knows how to play political hardball.

The other is less well-trod territory. Although some observers say this controversy boils down to a contract dispute, they also note the trickiness of navigating royalty-based deals with a faculty member.

"It's an unusual lawsuit," says Harold L. Marquis, an attorney at the Atlanta-based firm Thomas, Kayden, Horstemeyer & Risley, which specializes in intellectual property. "I haven't seen anything quite like it before."

In 1999, with the full support of the chemistry department and the then-president of FSU, Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, MDS donated $6 million to the $22 million project. By 2002, the price had increased to $46 million. MDS made another donation of $5 million, and the state legislature matched the entire $11 million gift. Holton also agreed to donate $18.5 million from his lab account, funded by Taxol royalties. In exchange, he called for a number of provisions, including 165 fume hoods and four endowed chairs in synthetic organic chemistry, along with office space with a set number of square feet.

Eventually, a total of $52 million was raised. But when the final bid came in last June, the cost had swelled to $67 million. Once again, Holton offered to make up the difference, but, growing testy due to the delays, he threatened to take back the gifts if the project didn't get under way soon. "The reality is: sometimes Bob Holton is not very diplomatic," says Michael D. Devine, executive director of MDS.

After that, the situation degenerated quickly. Wetherell, a former Florida politician who had served as the state's speaker of the house and who became president of FSU in 2003, fired a letter back at Holton, citing "exorbitant time and money requirements" and "onerous ancillary requirements." FSU, he said, planned to "move in a different direction and build a chemistry facility [that would] serve more expansive research purposes."

FSU agreed to return the initial $6 million, but Wetherell authorized the university to use the remaining Taxol money to construct the new building, including the $5 million second gift, as well as Holton's $18.5 million lab account, which FSU claims ultimately belongs to the university. The money set aside for the endowed chairs would be used to help construct the new building. This last missive, however, wasn't sent to any members of the chemistry faculty. "It was a total bombshell," Devine says.

The chemistry faculty drew up a resolution, which they passed unanimously. "This uncollegial and secretive approach is inappropriate for an institution of higher learning and is found offensive by our faculty," the resolution states.

But before the resolution could be sent to Wetherell, Joseph Travis, interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, stepped in, warning the entire chemistry department that Wetherell would likely retaliate by asking for department chair Naresh Dalal to resign, appointing an outside administrator to run the department, and freezing all the department's budgets.

Several faculty members say privately that this ham-fisted approach did much to damage morale and hopes of resolving the issue. "I think it would be fair to say that the department is pretty much cowed at the moment," Holton says.

Some faculty, however, aren't worried. Chemistry professor Joseph B. Schlenoff, who is chairing the committee for new building, declined to comment in detail, but says, "I can assure you that we are building a world-class chemistry facility."

Wetherell and Travis declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit. The university's counsel, Betty Steffens, did not respond to C&EN's request for an interview.

The university, however, issued a written statement, saying it has "moved forward ??? to construct a chemistry building ... serving more than one branch of chemistry."

The conflict comes on the heels of another very public FSU controversy, an ill-fated attempt to build a chiropractic college on campus. A state legislator, also a chiropractor, earmarked $9 million in taxpayer dollars for the college. Amid outcry from FSU faculty-who believed a chiropractic center would damage the university's reputation-the state board of governors, which oversees all the Florida state universities, voted to kill plans for the college.

The conflict raises larger, more general questions about Holton's influence on campus. All those interviewed by C&EN say Holton's success has been good for the university. Some also argue that Holton is justified in helping to steer the direction of the department and that the molecular recognition program was broad enough to include just about any facet of chemistry. Others say making agreements with too many strings is a recipe for trouble.

"We have successful donors, and they have a certain influence, but not to the extent that they talk about how many chemical hoods they want," says Alan Paau, assistant vice chancellor for the University of California, San Diego, Technology Transfer Office.

"I think this type of lawsuit is likely to become more common as universities are giving inventors a bigger part of any royalties received," attorney Marquis says.


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