Professor’s ‘grave misconduct’ in UMN lab leads to discipline

Lab researchers were mistreated by their adviser for years, though the adviser denies the accusations.

Illustrated+by+Morgan+La+Casse

Morgan La Casse

Illustrated by Morgan La Casse

Cleo Krejci and Katrina Pross

A tenured neuroscience professor at the University of Minnesota faces disciplinary action for mistreatment of researchers after the University found “grave misconduct” in his lab.

The University’s Medical School dean delivered a letter of reprimand in November to tenured neuroscience professor and lab manager Michael K. Lee, who will be removed from the Graduate School faculty later on Sept. 1, 2019 as a consequence of the actions specified in the letter of reprimand. According to the University’s letter, Lee created a work environment of “intimidation and fear” in his laboratory and mistreated students, among other stated reasons for the discipline. His behavior is inconsistent with the University’s Code of Conduct, according to the letter.

Lee wrote a response letter days after receiving the letter of reprimand, saying he disagrees with the stated charges made by the University. He declined the Minnesota Daily’s multiple interview requests.

“I would like to respond to charges made in the above … letter of reprimand as I feel that the stated charges are quite arbitrary and untrue. Further, given that I was not given an opportunity to respond to these charges during your investigation of this matter, I ask that my response be included in my personnel file,” Lee wrote in his response letter.

Like other schools across the country, many say the University struggles with a skewed power balance between graduate advisers, students and postdoctoral researchers. Leaders in University graduate education say there needs to be better policies to support those who experience rare but harmful relationships with their faculty advisers.

“He knew he could go and scream, or yell … with anybody to hear, and then nothing would happen,” said Christopher Gallardo, who joined Lee’s neuroscience lab in April 2014 and worked there until December 2017.

Emails shared with the Daily show that University staff, including those at the University’s department of Human Resources, knew about Gallardo’s concerns with Lee’s behavior more than three years ago.

In response to a request for comment about the letter of discipline and the Graduate School climate in respect to the relationship between students and faculty members, the University of Minnesota wrote in an email that “the disciplinary letter speaks for itself, and the University has no further comment.”

Letter points to “general disrespect” of lab researchers

The Nov. 8 letter states that Lee’s actions created a “work environment of intimidation and fear.”

Actions described in the letter include yelling at lab researchers, setting unrealistic expectations about time needed to complete work, expecting constant availability, inequitable treatment of individual lab researchers and “general disrespect.” The letter specifies Lee violated both the University’s Code of Conduct and Faculty Tenure policy, which say University staff should act ethically and with integrity, be fair and respectful to others and manage responsibly.

According to the letter, Lee’s conduct was addressed two years ago by Timothy Ebner, head of the Department of Neuroscience, and Michele Morrissey, human resources director for the University’s Medical School.

“You were admonished at that time regarding your conduct and counseled regarding expectations. Unfortunately, your unprofessional conduct has continued,” the letter states.

Lee disputed the statements in his Nov. 19 response letter addressed to Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs Amanda Termuhlen.

In addition to being removed from the graduate faculty, Lee was removed from his administrative assignment as director of the center for neurodegenerative disease in the Institute for Translational Neuroscience and the ITN’s steering committee.

Lee can still work with postdoctoral researchers and undergraduate students.

“I do not deny that I can be quite direct in my critiques and my normal tone tends to side on being loud, which would be hard on some individuals,” Lee wrote. “Thus, I realize that I have areas where I need improvement.”

Since Lee started at the University in 2009, 13 postdoctoral researchers have worked in the lab, according to a public records request. Fewer than five undergraduates and five graduate students have worked in the lab, according to a public records request.

Using mice, Lee’s lab studies neurodegenerative diseases in humans. Lee has garnered nearly $8 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health for his research at the University.

“I am sure individuals that are performing below expectations would naturally avoid me. However, I am certain that most in my lab have no problem approaching me or asking me for advice regarding experiments,” Lee wrote in his response.

The letter offered Lee six months of executive coaching, which Lee said he would be willing to utilize, according to his response letter.

The Daily obtained the University’s letter and Lee’s response letter through a public records request.

Lab’s culture leads to early departure

Christopher Gallardo, who worked in Lee’s lab for more than three years as a Ph.D. student, told the Daily that he is named in the letter of reprimand. He said it was difficult to graduate with a Ph.D. in pharmacology with Lee as his graduate adviser.

“Soon after I had already joined, [Lee] very quickly became very irate for very small details and would constantly barrage people with insults,” Gallardo said. 

Gallardo contacted the University’s Office of Human Resources for help with what he described as a hostile relationship with Lee, according to emails from September 2015 and April 2016 he shared with the Daily. 

“My adviser, Dr. Michael K. Lee, has a rather volatile demeanor, which is not exactly surprising to anyone in his department or our building,” Gallardo wrote in a 2016 email. 

Gallardo said he began telling faculty that he would quit his lab position earlier than planned in winter 2017, after spending more than three years of work in the lab researching Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Lee was removed as Gallardo’s graduate adviser in summer 2018. A few months later, Gallardo received his Ph.D. in pharmacology. He now lives in Chicago.

“At one point I’m just happy that I’ve moved on,” he said. “But I hope that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Room for improvement in Graduate School climate

Imbalanced power dynamics between advisers and graduate students are not unique to Lee’s lab. Many say strained relationships make up a small but pervasive aspect of Graduate School culture.

“[Mistreatment of students by their advisers] is not a huge problem in numerical terms,” said Colin Campbell, associate dean for graduate education in the Medical School and Director of Graduate Studies in Gallardo’s home department of pharmacology. “But it’s a big problem if it’s happening to you.”

Sean Chen, president of the University’s Council of Graduate Students, said conflicts between graduate students and faculty can arise in many forms from a culture of imbalanced power relationships.

While Chen said many graduate advisers are strong mentors, conflicts resulting from these relationships sometimes go unaddressed in graduate programs because the faculty are tenured and attract grant money to the University.

Graduate School Dean Scott Lanyon said he agrees that issues in student and adviser relationships, as well as advisers and postdoctoral researchers, can be a problem at the University and nationwide.

“One of the keys in this is that most [of the] conflict that we are aware of … is avoidable. It’s poor communication. If we can improve communication, life gets better,” Lanyon said. “The good news is that the vast majority of our graduate students are happy … and so we celebrate that, but then we can go back and say ‘well, there’s room for improvement.’”

In hopes of making improvements to the Graduate School’s climate, Campbell is working with other faculty to create a new code of conduct specific to graduate-level Medical School faculty. Campbell said he’s concerned that the University’s Code of Conduct, which describes “guiding principles” for all University members, is currently too broad. He added that the code’s lack of specification sometimes allows misconduct to go undisciplined.

“We need to confront this. … We have a small problem that is an inevitable consequence of the structure of graduate education,” Campbell said. “We know that because there are not formal mechanisms in place, students sometimes suffer.”

Campbell said he started drafting a faculty-specific code even before he became aware of Lee’s behavior.

“I would really not want to come across like [the new code of conduct] is a magic wand that’s going to eliminate abuse,” Campbell said. “What we’re trying to do is what we can, which is to confront what everybody agrees is a small number of individuals who do a disproportionate amount of harm.”