September 26, 2008





Town Hall meeting: A town hall meeting for Research Officers (ROs) was held on July 16th at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).  About 90 ROs attended.  A number of main issues arose.  These included: minimum postdoc salary, disparate health benefits for postdocs, CUMC salary raises, principal investigator (PI) status for ROs, professorial titles for ROs, termination notice, and people getting lost in the system.  The first six of these issues the ROC was aware of.  The issue of “ghosts” in the system was new.  It appears that some ROs have been disappearing from the Columbia rolls during normal transitions from one lab or department to another or from one grant to another.  This results in their losing salary, benefits, and even immigration status until they manage to get themselves reinstated.  The ROC will investigate this issue during the 2008-2009 academic year.


Postdoc issues:  This year we have focused on about half a dozen issues which include: 1) Not all postdocs are receiving salaries above the National Institutes of Health (NIH) minimum.  2) Disparity in access to benefits for different types of postdocs.  3) Lack of affordable housing from the university puts a particular burden on postdocs for whom rent is a large fraction of their salary.  4) Some postdocs are not being paid in a timely manner when their funding source changes.  5) Tuition exemption for courses such as Responsible Conduct of Research, Biostatistics, and Science Writing would be a valuable resource to have available.  6) Clear notice of when an appointment will not be renewed is needed to help postdocs prepare for their next position.

The ROC has been in contact with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPdA) about these and other issues.  Unfortunately the Director stepped down at the end of 2007 and a new Director was only appointed this summer.  The ROC will continue to push these issues with the new Director of OPdA and with other University Administrators.


Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) salary issues: The ROC has heard for several years now that ROs at CUMC were receiving zero to minimal raises.  We raised this issue with Senior Vice Provost Stephen Rittenberg who responded with a study comparing raises between CUMC and the Morningside/Lamont campuses for the period 2007-2008.  The study found that CUMC ROs with titles of Senior Research Scientist/Scholar, Associate Research Scientist/Scholar, and Staff Associate on average had received raises which were 2 percentage points below the raises of those with similar titles on the Morningside or Lamont campuses.

The ROC brought this to the attention of CUMC Dean Lee Goldman and CUMC Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Hogarty.  Currently we are in discussions with CUMC Vice Dean for Curricular Affairs Anne Taylor about their plans to bring the average CUMC raises in line with those of the Morningside and Lamont campuses.


Salary equity study: In response to a request from the ROC, the Senate
Commission on the Status of Women and Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives Gene Howard launched a salary equity study for research officers in Summer 2006.  The study was conducted by the Provost’s Office of Planning and Institutional Research, headed by Lucy Drotning.  In Fall 2006 She and her assistant Jose Uribe met with the ROC to define the scope of the survey and discuss preliminary results.  The study has since undergone further review and refinement under the new Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives Geraldine Downey.  We anticipate a final report to the senate in the fall.


CUMC Faculty Council:  One of the continuing efforts of the ROC is to expand the role of ROs in university governance.  The Faculty Council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons is a natural place to do this.  The stated rules explicitly list Professional Research Officers (PROs) as being eligible to serve as members of the council.  PROs are ROs with titles of Senior Research Scientist/Scholar, Research Scientist/Scholar, or Associate Research Scientist/Scholar.  However, reviewing the roster of Faculty Council members, the ROC has found no PROs.  The ROC has been in contact with the Chairs of the Departments making up the CUMC Faculty Council to encourage them to nominate ROs to serve on the Faculty Council.  The ROC will continue to push for this during the 2008-2009 academic year.


Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Principal Investigator (PI) status with title:   During this past year some Associate Research Scientists, who after functioning for years as PIs on their own grants, were surprised to learn in their last round of applications that they no longer had standing as independent researchers.  The practice of allowing some Associate Research Scientists/Scholars to serve as PIs had gotten out of alignment with the policy in the Faculty Handbook, which says Associate Research Scientists must have a letter from senior department faculty or their deans authorizing them to apply as PIs.  The Institutional Review Board (IRB), apparently in an attempt to bring practice back into line with policy, had blocked applications from some Associate Research Scientists who had applied previously as PIs without difficulty.  After strong objections from some Associate Research Scientists and their departmental colleagues, Executive Vice President (EVP) for Research David Hirsh announced a new policy allowing Associate Research Scientists to seek departmental approval to apply as PIs, either permanently or grant by grant.  Additionally the new policy makes Research Scientists/Scholars and Senior Research Scientists/Scholar automatically eligible to serve as PIs.  These policy revisions announced by EVP Hirsh will be reflected in the new edition of the Faculty Handbook, due out this fall.


Termination policy: The current version of the faculty handbook requires ROs give three months notification of resignation, yet requires of the University no corresponding notice of nonrenewal of an RO.  We have raised this issue with Senior Vice Provost Stephen Rittenberg.  Since then we have been told by Assistant Provost of Academic Appointments Pearl Spiro that the policy has now been changed to require of the University a three month notice of nonrenewal.  The newest version of The Faculty Handbook, which is due out this fall, will reflect this change.


Task Force on Diversity in Science: This task force works as an advisory group for Geraldine Downey, the Vice Provost for diversity initiatives.  Initially there were no RO members of the committee.  The ROC pointed this out to the task force, noting that ROs are an important resource for increasing diversity among the academic ranks as both PROs and postdocs are major sources for faculty hires.  As a result, a seat for ROs has been created on the task force.


Effort reporting: The Executive Committee formed an ad hoc subcommittee which included two RO Senators to deal with the new Effort Reporting policy.  Through meetings of this ad hoc committee and discussions with the relevant University Administrators a number of issues relating to the requirements of Effort Reporting were clarified.


Faculty titles for Professional Research Officers (PROs):  According to the Faculty Handbook, PROs have qualifications and have made contributions to their fields of research which are equivalent to those of their faculty peers with parallel titles (Senior Research Scientist/Scholars=Full Professor, Research Scientist/Scholar=Associate Professor, and Associate Research Scientist/Scholar=Assistant Professor).  However, this equivalence is recognized neither inside nor outside the University, with a large negative impact on the ability of PROs to win funding, both at Columbia and externally.  By this measure Columbia appears to be trailing many peer institutions, in the Ivy League and elsewhere, which grant professorial titles to PROs.  A survey of the top 20 universities in the US, using the 2000 National Academy of Sciences rankings, finds that most universities that allow PROs to be independent PIs, also grant the professorial title to their ROs.


Housing issues: The Housing Policy Committee continued working with Facilities to determine an equitable basis for annual rental increases for officers, staff, and students in university housing.  The Housing Policy Committee brought forth a resolution urging greater transparency in process of rental increase determination.  The resolution passed the Senate.  Annual rental increases were reduced to 4.3% down from 5% in the past two years and from the anticipated 5% this year.  Details are available in the annual report of the Housing Policy Committee.

Staff officer issues:
Staff officers are eligible for tuition exemption of up to fifteen credits per term when enrolled in a degree program at Columbia, Barnard or Teachers College.  However, if the officer is not registered in a degree program, the benefit is only one course per term.  In March of 2008, Senator Zhiying Esther Hou spoke with Vice Provost Roxie Smith concerning the possibility of providing this fifteen credits benefit to all Staff Officers, whether or not they are registered a degree program. The ROC is going to follow this issue up with Vice Provost Smith

Other issues which the ROC has discussed include: the current two year waiting period before Staff Associates become eligible for retirement benefits, the limited promotion possibilities due to there being only two staff officer titles, title changes for Staff Officers holding PhDs, co-authorship on manuscripts, and attending conferences and presenting research results.


Manhattanville report:  Currently, a representative of the ROC attends both the Physical Development Committee meetings and the Task Force on Campus Planning meetings.  Within the last two years, both committees have focused on the planning and development of Manhattanville. Transparency in design, proposal review and planning of vacated space is essential and should include members of the Research Officer community.  In the coming months, a cohesive report from all committees within the Senate will be submitted for review, and the ROC will review this report with these suggestions in mind.


Accounts payable and purchasing: At the February 2008 Senate meeting, the ROC raised the issue of problems with the Accounts Payable and Purchasing offices.  Equipment orders take months to process. Payment of vendors takes months too and as a result, some vendors are refusing to do business with Columbia.  In response, at the April 2008 Senate meeting, the Executive VP for Finance Anne Sullivan reported on the actions her office was taking to improve the efficiency of Accounts Payable and Purchasing.