The administrators always get away with it

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The Contra Costa Times broke the story that a top Berkeley administrator has been penalized for illicitly and repeatedly promoting an employee with whom she was allegedly having a long-term sexual relationship.

Apparently, Jonathan Caniezo’s salary increased from less than $70,000 in 2007 to over $110,000 in 2010, despite protests from his immediate supervisors, thanks to Assistant Vice Chancellor Diane Leite’s insistence. University administrators repeatedly balked at the increases, but again and again, Leite’s insistence carried the day.

Eventually a whistle was blown, and Leite recently lost her assistant vice chancellor title, her rank was downgraded from MSP 28 to MSP 27 and she was given a 7 percent pay cut from $188,531 to $175,000. The initial judgment docked her to $173,000 and change, but she complained, and her boss Vice Chancellor Graham Fleming rounded it up to $175,000.

Diane Leite was an administrator in my department some years ago. She was tremendously intelligent, efficient, capable and thoughtful, and we all knew that she would go far in the system. And she did, for good reason. The terrible series of misjudgments that comprises the present case is an aberration that needs no psychological evaluation here. But the reckoning is not complete.

You see, there is a dual standard for administrators and others, regardless of fault. The bottom line is that administrators always get away scot-free. In over three decades on this campus, I have never seen an administrator fired or forced to make good on gross negligence, incompetence or outright fraud. Let’s see how this works.

In the early 1980s, a graduate student in the School of Public Health was working on her degree with her advisor, a senior faculty member and other public health faculty and personnel, in addition to off-campus agencies, on a project that eventually led to the elucidation of the risk of HIV in the female partners of bisexual men. Some of the work had to be contracted to off-campus agencies, which was and still is perfectly normal. The graduate student was being compensated by a grant’s subcontract to a local hospital where some research was being carried out.

But it turns out that there was a little-known rule, peculiar to Berkeley’s Sponsored Project Office and nowhere else, that prohibited students from receiving compensation from subcontracts to other agencies. The project office pursued — not the School of Public Health administrators who submitted the grant, nor the professors who were the principal investigators, nor even the project office staff who approved the grant (which was funded by the National Institutes of Health) — the graduate student. They went after the student, even though there was no malfeasance, no violation of external policies, no illicit monetary gain — as if a graduate student could control any of this. They threatened career ruin unless all the salary was repaid to the campus, although they did not contest that it was legally earned. And no one stood up in the student’s defense. No one.

Fast forward to the Leite affair. How does the administration handle this? She is slightly demoted, with a pay cut less than UC employees of her grade suffered under “furlough” two years ago. Caniezo loses nothing, apparently, even though wrongfully paid salary legally must be repaid to public agencies. But of course, his increases were completely legal, weren’t they?

Let’s assume generously that Caniezo’s salary would have increased from less than $70,000 in 2007 to $85,000 in 2012. Yet it increased by 2010 to $110,000. That looks like about an extra $100,000 over those years — $125,000 if you count projections for 2012.

This is money ripped directly from the public coffers by malfeasance, and possibly by conspiracy. Leite and Caniezo should pay it back. UC Berkeley — specifically Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming — should demand that it be paid back. Or he can prove that the rules on this campus apply to everyone but the administrators. And why Leite and Caniezo are still working on campus is an open question.

Kevin Padian is a professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley.