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Is Your Lab A Hazard? The Government May Be Watching You

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March 18, 2002
Volume 80, Number 11
CENEAR 80 11 pp. 39-40
ISSN 0009-2347
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Longtime professor's termination raises questions about tenure, safety standards


Philip L. Stotter knew his office and lab were cluttered and overflowing. During his 28 years as an organic chemistry professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA), he'd accumulated books and journals that would fill hundreds of boxes, and thousands of chemicals, some of them expensive and unique.

Stotter, 60, says his problems were typical of those facing organic chemistry faculty who tend so-called chemical morgues: no safe space to put the compounds, no clear-cut protocol for cleanup. He'd been actively involved in trying to create a new chemical storage facility at the university, and he says he was saving the journals for a new chemistry reading room.

But university officials saw it differently. They maintained that the office was a serious fire hazard, the lab was extremely dangerous, and Stotter wouldn't cooperate. Last month, after what it says was two years of trying to get him to clean up the mess, the university terminated him, stripping him of tenure. Stotter's lab is now locked, the chemicals have been carted away by a hazardous materials team, and his name has been removed from the chemistry department's website.

Still, a faculty tribunal investigating the matter concluded that, while Stotter was indeed negligent and even uncooperative, the university had been vague and inconsistent about its cleanup procedures and regulations. The tribunal's recommendation was unanimous: Stotter should remain a chemistry professor at UTSA. In spite of that, the university's board of regents voted 8 to 0, with one abstention, to fire him.

Complicating matters, according to the tribunal's report, were claims that relations between Stotter and the university had long been soured over disagreements about pay raises and sick leave. Additionally, the university has recently undergone an administrative turnover, including a new president and provost.

Stotter has filed a lawsuit against UTSA over the issue, claiming that his property--including his library of authentic research samples--was illegally seized.

With increased attention to lab safety comes a need for concrete and explicit safety standards, something that's still missing at many universities.

SUPPORTERS SAY the case illustrates a disturbing, ongoing erosion of the once-hallowed institution of tenure and of the power of academic tribunals. Others say it's a wake-up call for scientists to keep clean, safe labs in a new era of safety consciousness.

Stotter says he had no idea what was coming--as far as he knew, his position at the university was secure. In January 2000, he'd had a satisfactory post-tenure review. A former student of Stotter's established the Philip L. Stotter Award in Organic Chemistry for outstanding UTSA chemistry students. Stotter had been cultivating a research relationship with Los Alamos National Lab.

In October 2000, though, Stotter was told that his office was a fire hazard; university safety inspectors then said his lab was a safety hazard.

What followed, according to the tribunal report, was a series of miscommunications and botched attempts at cleanup, compounded by hard feelings on both sides. Stotter dragged his feet, the tribunal said, removing some books from his office, but claiming the university wouldn't provide help to clean up the lab. For example, it refused to spend $250 for a respirator needed to safely remove some chemicals. Stotter also claims he was waiting for the new chemical storage building, which was nearing completion. The university's check sheet for laboratory safety, the tribunal says, was "vague and confusing."

In January 2001, Stotter was suspended with pay, and a hazmat team emptied his lab to the tune of $33,000. In July, UTSA President Ricardo Romo informed Stotter that he was taking steps to fire him.

As part of the termination process, in December 2001, the university convened the tribunal, which consisted of three UTSA professors. They listened to four days of testimony, finally concluding that while Stotter was responsible for cleaning up his lab, "we do not believe that the ... evidence provides good cause for the harsh penalty of termination."

In February 2002, though, the board of regents voted to terminate Stotter.

"I was quite surprised by the regents' action," says Steven G. Kellman, literature and foreign languages professor and chairman of the tribunal.

Romo referred C&EN's inquiries to the University of Texas' Office of General Counsel, as did UTSA's department of environmental health and safety. Helen K. Bright, an attorney at that office, declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

UTSA Regent Cyndi Taylor Krier, vice president of Texas Government Relations for USAA, who abstained from the vote, also declined to comment.

Judith A. Walmsley, chair of UTSA's chemistry department, also remains mum on the case. But organic chemistry associate professor George R. Negrete says that while Stotter's lab was a problem, the university didn't handle the situation well. "Unfortunately, these two forces locked horns," he says. "Do I think they did the right thing? No."

Adds Stotter's lawyer, Regina B. Criswell, "My impression is that this has lowered the bar on what constitutes good cause to fire a tenured professor."

Charles Zucker, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Faculty Association, agrees. "A president of a university should only disregard the findings of a tribunal when they have good reasons to, and those should be put in writing," he says. "One has to wonder how useful these panels really are."

BUT IN THE PAST few years, academic labs have come under the watchful eye of the Environmental Protection Agency, and safety has become a paramount issue. Universities need to be increasingly vigilant in making sure their faculty maintain safe facilities, says James A. Kaufman, president of the Laboratory Safety Institute, an educational organization in Natick, Mass. "I'm afraid this is not just an isolated situation," Kaufman says. "There are people who are used to doing things in an old way, and the wind is now blowing in a new direction."

Indeed, the issue of lab safety has come up elsewhere recently in Texas university systems, including a case involving Charanjit Rai, a longtime chemical and natural gas engineering professor at Texas A&M University, Kingsville. Several years ago, the university took steps to fire Rai, again against the recommendations of a faculty committee. The grounds for termination were primarily a sexual harassment charge, but also included allegations that Rai's lab was unsafe. Rai ultimately took early retirement last year.

In the mid-1990s, the UT Austin chemistry building was beset by five fires in two-and-a-half years, prompting an audit by the state. And at UTSA, another chemistry professor, B. S. Thyagarajan, was allegedly ordered recently to clean up his lab, which was deemed a safety hazard.

With increased attention to lab safety comes a need for concrete and explicit safety standards, something that's still missing at many universities, including UTSA. "I think that's hazy at places like this," Negrete says. "There may be instructions, but they haven't gotten here."

In the meantime, Stotter plans to do consulting, saying his chances of landing another faculty appointment are slim. "I'm not sure how many places want to take someone who's 60," he says.

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Is Your Lab A Hazard? The Government May Be Watching You

Things were a bit different in the lab back when chemistry professor Judith A. Walmsley was going to school. The lack of safety standards then would curl--if not remove--a modern chemist's hair. For example, "when I was an undergrad, we used flames with ether in the room," says Walmsley, who is chairman of the University of Texas, San Antonio, chemistry department.

Today, the focus on lab safety and hazardous waste handling in academia has never been greater. And cases like that involving Philip L. Stotter, a UTSA chemistry professor who was recently terminated for having an unsafe lab, will only become more frequent as universities become ever more mindful of potential dangers.

Part of what's spurring this trend is the Environmental Protection Agency's new focus on universities' compliance with hazardous waste regulations. James A. Kaufman, director of the Massachusetts-based Laboratory Safety Institute, recalls hearing an EPA administrator say at a conference a few years ago that "academic institutions are fertile ground."

Since then, EPA has levied some hefty fines against a number of universities, including a $1.7 million fine handed to the University of Hawaii for improper chemical storage.

But in many respects, observers say, lab safety standards are still foggy and inconsistent. "Institutions need to have safety policies that are in writing. If they're not in writing, you don't have policies--you have an oral tradition," Kaufman says.

And frequently, professors are loathe to part with expensive, though excess, chemicals, lest they should eventually be needed. But without storage facilities, the bottles pile up in the lab.

Various organizations are working to help clear things up.

"One of our big problems is that almost all regulations are based on industrial usage," says California State University, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Stanley H. Pine, a member of the American Chemical Society's Task Force on Laboratory Environment, Health & Safety.

Recently, Howard Hughes Medical Institute prepared a report outlining new ways to tailor hazardous waste regulations to the special environment of universities, a strategy that 10 institutions nationwide have tested.

ACS's publication "Less Is Better" offers lab waste-reduction techniques. And Kaufman's Laboratory Safety Institute provides training and other educational services to academics.

"This is something we have to be concerned about and figure out how to work cooperatively with universities," Pine says. "Sometimes it's a delicate balance."

The Laboratory Safety Institute is on the Internet at http://www.labsafety.org; "Less is Better" is available in PDF format at http://chemistry.org/portal/resources?id=f46aec00255211d6f0db6ed9fe800100.

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