EVMS - a community school with growing problems

Eastern Virginia Medical School Dean Evan Farmer bragged about cutting 81 positions and freezing staff and faculty salary increases.  Then he turns around and gets the EVMS board to establish a new and non-essential department of dermatology.  And then he gets them to hire his wife at a high 6-figure salary to chair the department.

The action has created morale problems and personnel turmoil on what was previously a fairly tranquil campus. "How can he in good conscience fire all those people and then justify hiring his wife and establishing a new department?" one asked.

One answer is that the new 'non-essential' department is producing more income than the four essential departments combined.  And the school needs the dough.

Dr. Antoinette Hood, wife of Dean Evan Farmer, is the only department chairman who does not report to Farmer, however.  Instead, when hired, the EVMS board arranged for her to report to James Lind, associate dean of clinical affairs.  Farmer is Lind's immediate supervisor.  An awkward situation, said one official, since Lind's career success is totally dependent on Farmer's whims and actions.

(There is one report circulating that in one case Dr. Hood put in a call for Lind who was in a meeting. When given the message, he said to tell Dr. Hood he'd call after the meeting.  Moments later, Dean Farmer called and wanted to know why his wife couldn't reach Lind).

Wealthy school supporters said the school appears to be in the throes of management turmoil and upheaval.  See:  Abrupt retirements @ EVMS puzzling.

What's troubling @ EVMS?

That's a question increasingly being asked by long time supporters and contributors to EVMS.

"It looks to me like a new management team has come in and fearing failure or lowered performance, has turned on some of its most valuable employees," said one wealthy supporter.

"I think to try to solve their problems, they have politicized the board and management in a 'you're with us or you're against us' mentality."

"The school in its current mid-life was run by Dr. E. E. Brickell a well known, widely respected manager and community leader.

"He had a performance-based management style whereby goals were achieved without bureaucratic or political roadblocks.

"The new group seems to want to do everything by the numbers, but they don't know how to add up the numbers.  Consequently you get a management style that appears troubled.

"Myself and some others are pulling off to the side lines to see how this shakes out and whether we want to continue or increase our support," he said.

Another recommended:  "The best thing they could do with the school, and I'm not sure we can prove we need it, is to merge it with Old Dominion University and make it a state organization..

"It appears to me that it is more a source of community pride and it has begun to lose its compass."

Several associated with the school have claimed that the action violated the school's nepotism policy and constituted a conflict of interest under state law.  They declined to speak on the record, however.  They did say there are 4 essential departments ( family medicine, internal medicine, gynecology, and pediatrics) for a medical school and dermatology wasn't one of them.  The action has created a morale and trust mis-trust problems among faculty and staff.

The EVMS board hired Dr. Hood as head of a new dermatology department in December. The action was taken after Farmer left the EVMS board meeting.  He did not participate in the recommendation, discussion or action, according to school spokesperson.

In all fairness, school officials said, that the Department of Dermatology is the school's more profitable, money-making department.  Will the coziness of the relationship between Dean Farmer and his wife remain a factor in maintaining good morale?  One school official said, "Probably.  This is just not a healthy role for management and board to establish.

"Further, Farmer hired an associate dean to help in his office, while laying off at least two long-time faculty members and maybe more," said one source.

Previously a dean was fired for hiring his spouse.  The school spokesperson hid behind 'it's a personnel matter' to avoid admitting it had happened. The school's policy on nepotism states:

"Persons related by family or marriage...may be employed by the Medical School provided ...the employee and the immediate family member are engaged in teaching or research in the same department...(provided) the President and Dean finds that this is in the best interest of the Medical School....  After such finding, the Dean ensures that such employee...does not supervise, evaluate, or otherwise participate in personnel or other decisions regarding the other."

The state conflict of interest law,  2.2-3106, states:

"Prohibited contracts by officers and employees of state government and Eastern Virginia Medical School.

"A. No officer or employee of any governmental agency of state government or Eastern Virginia Medical School shall have a personal interest in a contract with the governmental agency of which he is an officer or employee, other than his own contract of employment....

"C. The provisions of this section shall not apply to:

"1. An employee's personal interest in additional contracts of employment with his own governmental agency that accrue to him because of a member of his immediate family, provided the employee does not exercise any control over the employment or the employment activities of the member of his immediate family and the employee is not in a position to influence those activities; (emphasis added)"

Paragraph 2 of the above section then adds that such employment is OK if the governing board finds the spouse (employee) is in the best interest of the institution.  But then it states:  ..."after such finding, the governing board of the educational institution or the Eastern Virginia Medical School ensures that the officer or employee, or the immediate family member, does not have sole authority to supervise, evaluate or make personnel decisions regarding the other..."

To try to avoid conflict, Dr. Farmer's wife, Dr. Hood's position was placed to directly report to James F. Lind, associate dean of clinical affairs. 

However, the school's spokesperson said that Lind's immediate supervisor is Dr. Farmer which, in theory, gives Farmer control over his wife's employment activities.  "My question," said one disgruntled employee, is how can't this arrangement put Dr. Farmer in a career life or death position of dominance over Jim Lind?

"All his wife has to do is tell Jim, 'if I don't get this or that,' then my husband will hear about this.  Is that a defensible arm's length separation over Dr. Farmer's ability to influence actions involving his wife?  I don't think so."

David Sutelan, EVMS's lawyer, said, he did not give the board an opinion on whether the situation constitutes a violation of the state's conflict of interest law. 

"They didn't ask me for one," Sutelan said.  "If they had, I would have said it was legal under the state conflict of interest law.

"Prior to March 6, 2002, this action would have been illegal," Sutelan said. Sutelan explained that because of a previous conflict, he had drafted a change in the state conflict of interest law that would specifically allow hiring of Dr. Hood.  The General Assembly made the change and it became effective March 6.

"My opinion now," Sutelan said, "is that it is not illegal because of the change in the law."  Sutelan is assuming that the proper separation of interests work in reality.

Sutelan acknowledged the hiring of Dean Farmer's wife is a policy violation, but added, "that policy is being changed by the board as we speak."

Dr. Hood had been guaranteed employment, complete with a non-compete contract in the Department of Medicine, since July 1, 2001. An informal guarantee that the new dermatology department would be established with her as chairman.  The action was formalized in December.

The whole thing at the school is beginning to stink.  There's something bad wrong and management and the board's only solution is to further politicize the school's operation.

"I hope they get this thing under control and bring some common sense back into management or the school could have some real problems down the road," said one person involved in the situation.