A Cancer on ASU

Could Bob Pettit have cured cancer in his lifetime? We might never know, thanks to nasty university politics

By October 13 — 10 days after the group received the safety report — they had conducted two internal safety inspections, held a general safety meeting with their staff, met with the EH&S office for clarification and conducted a follow-up inspection to make sure that safety recommendations were properly followed.

But the group's funds remained frozen. Poste insisted Pettit was not in compliance with the provost's orders.

As 2005 came to a close, Pettit was starting to feel the effects of the funding freeze.

Bob Pettit
Martha Strachan
Bob Pettit
The Biodesign Institute is part of a new wave of research at ASU.
Martha Strachan
The Biodesign Institute is part of a new wave of research at ASU.

Pettit was particularly concerned about money from his Dalton Endowment. Though he was stripped of the title as of September 1, 2005, he still should have received a quarterly payment on June 30 of that year, before he was removed from the position, totaling $77,243.92. The check was, according to Pettit, sent to the university to be deposited in his account in July. Pettit says the money was never received.

Because he didn't have it, he says, he was forced to fire two of his expert chemists.

During that time, he was told by Provost Glick that he could not apply for any new federal grant money, a worry as the application deadline for the next year was approaching.

Next, Glick sent a letter to Pettit informing him that he now reported directly to Poste and Tracy, rather than to the provost.

The person who made this decision, as indicated in Glick's letter, was Michael Crow, the university's president.

"You must direct your inquiries, requests and concerns to Dr. Poste or Dr. Tracy, not to me, effective today. They will make decisions regarding you and your research group and the other personnel who work in the CCR, including the determination of whether you have met the conditions required to unfreeze your research accounts and accept proposals from you for research funding," Glick writes.

This transfer of power was the death knell for Pettit's group.

The year ended with a flurry of nasty, frustrated e-mails in which Pettit insisted he was in compliance and Poste insisted he was not.

In a late 2005 e-mail, Poste writes, "The authority to decide whether or not you have met the Provost's request for your compliance and cooperation resides with Dr. Tracy and myself. It is therefore unnecessary to burden the Provost with his inclusion on future correspondence that pertain to this matter."

By January 2006, it was over for Bob Pettit. His university funds were frozen, his Dalton Endowment was gone. His longstanding personal grant from the National Institute of Health was not renewed, because of federal funding cuts. In the mail tussle with Poste, somehow Pettit's researchers' applications for funding were never sent. The research group was essentially broke.

All researchers received a notice that they were to report to a meeting with Poste at 8 a.m. on a Friday in mid-January 2006. Pettit was ordered by Poste not to attend.

They were all fired.

Jack Knight, who was the assistant director for chemistry at the CRI, says even the letter firing them was condescending.

"The letters they sent out, they addressed everybody just as 'mister.' Now, that might seem like just a small thing, but in a university, rank is considered almost like you're in the Army," he says. "Most of us were entitled to be addressed as 'doctor' or 'professor.' It just seemed like one more calculated snub."

Poste informed the group they were fired and only a handful of people would be allowed back into the building after that day. The rest were given a short amount of time to go in, accompanied by a security guard, to collect their personal belongings.

In spite of the fact that his CRI no longer exists, Pettit is not giving up. He's still petitioning to have his Dalton Chair reactivated. He's looking for a lawyer. And he and his three remaining researchers are still doing cancer research, the best they can.

Pettit's dedication, and unwillingness to give up the work he loved, is heartbreaking.

But without access to the research of his former employees or his specimens, his work has ground almost to a standstill.

After he was officially evicted from the CRI building (the building that he designed and paid for with his federal grant money and donations), he was moved into a lab in the math building with less than 1,000 square feet of space. The lab is busted-up and dirty — it looks about as advanced as a high school chemistry lab, except not as big. The fume hoods needed to do the chemistry Pettit does are old and rickety.

It's a familiar space to Pettit — the lab he started out in at ASU, in 1965.

Today the CRI building has been renamed Interdisciplinary Technology and Sciences Building 5. In spite of the transition, there are still signs up that say CRI. Near a door on the south side there's a label that reads clearly "CRI Staff Only." Plaques in honor of donors who helped construct the building still hang outside the decimated laboratories.

Inside the building, the floors are smeared with dirt. Offices have been gutted. The lights are off in every hallway, giving the building a creepy, ghost-town feeling. The labs, most of which have had all their equipment ripped out, are empty. Some are used for storage of paint cans.

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I worked for GRP for a number of years as an ASU undergraduate and always found him to be extremely dedicated to careful and well controlled scientific research. The idea that natural products organic chemistry is somehow outdated as a possible source of cancer therapeutics reminds me of a few comments about ASU's new research efforts that came up at a recent NSF panel meeting, discussing ASU's new "Bioscienterrific Institute of NanoFictive InterConnections". Interdisciplinary "systems" work is sexy, but frankly even the agencies that fund the work are wondering if they are being had. The problem isn't that GRP's approach is timeconsuming and difficult..it was. The problem is are the proposed alternatives even science? Systems research has been consuming huge resources for almost fifteen years and frankly to date (although nobody really seems to doing research on quality of research vs. dollars invested) very modest gains have been seen, despite some flashy publications. I applaud GRP for his principled fight against both an autocratic university administration and an approach to science that may frankly add up to a big nothing. Good luck to ASU, my advice is sell the snake oil slowly, the AZ mooks might figure out that all their tax dollars aren't buying much but pretty (leaky, poorly built) research buildings.

Lynn Pritchett
Lynn Pritchett

Protocol is tedious, frustrating, and extremely time consuming. However, as Pettit's story painfully tells, it is a permanent tatoo on on the chest of every business, education, political, and research institution today. Protocol often seems an inconsequential waste of paper and energy, and when mistakes are made along the way, it magnifies the human impact ten-fold. The line crossed here, between making protocol error and choosing to bypass required procedures and/or informing all involved parties, is all too obvious. Question remain, however: "What strides in life-saving possibilities are now lost? Indeed, "What is the true price of progress?" Furthermore, "Did firing Pettit's staff, changing the institute's name, and demoting Pettit create a more focused, more efficient, more innovative and productive research environment?" Ulitimately, "Can those who made these decisions look into the eyes of a child dying of cancer, and truthfully say,"I'm sorry."

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