COLUMBIA, Mo. ― Gaining tenure is never a sure thing. Dylan Kesler figured his chances were pretty good.
The 42-year-old wildlife biologist has published nearly 30 scientific papers since his 2007 hiring as a University of Missouri assistant professor. He’s received high marks for his teaching and is a favorite of the school’s public relations team, which recently featured his work on mallard duck migration.
What those university press releases don’t say, though, is how Kesler filed a 2013 complaint with government prosecutors alleging the misuse of federal grants by colleagues. Or how a researcher whose work regularly exceeded expectations in his annual job reviews was subsequently accused of plagiarism in what he calls a targeted effort by his superiors to silence him. Though a university inquiry found “insufficient” evidence of misconduct, Kesler was nonetheless denied tenure by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, despite strong support from both colleagues in his department as well as a faculty advisory panel from the broader campus.
“I was the golden boy,” Kesler told The Associated Press in his first public comments since filing a sealed complaint against the university and three superiors in May 2013 under the federal False Claims Act. “They had to drum up something to make me look bad.”
The confidential complaint was made public in July after the U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas City declined to intervene for reasons it did not provide to Kesler nor in response to an AP request. Kesler’s attorney, George Smith, attributed the government’s move to the relatively small amount of money at stake compared to its previous False Claims prosecutions.
The Justice Department told Kesler he can continue to litigate on the government’s behalf, but since the university is a public entity, he wouldn’t be eligible to receive any money, including for legal fees, should his claims prevail. Unable to afford a prolonged legal fight against his employer, Kesler said he plans to drop the federal case but may pursue other legal action.
In the meantime, he’s out of a job after the spring semester.
In his complaint, Kesler said endowed professor Joshua Millspaugh and associate professor Francisco Aguilar have improperly paid their spouses at least $130,000 from large pools of federal grant money since 2010 while the women curtailed their job duties as research assistants and lab managers to remain home with newborns. Both women are listed in university records as working for other professors but actually report directly to their husbands, he said.
The use of spousal supervisors would violate university nepotism rules and put access to tens of millions of dollars of annual federal research money at risk, Kesler said.
“When I found out this was happening, the first thing I thought was, ‘That is (university) funding,’” he said. “That defrauding these (sources) creates a situation where we may not get that money anymore. … It was my primary concern.”
Millspaugh and his wife, Rami Woods, declined comment. So did Aguilar and his wife, Satu Lantianen, as well as department chairman John “Jack” Jones and Mark Ryan, director of the School of Natural Resources. University officials declined to make Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin available for an interview, but spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said in a written statement that “the results of our investigation and the information we provided to (the government) showed that those identified in the complaint were in fact working, and that the allegations that they were not … were unfounded.”
Banken said university confidentiality rules prevent a public discussion of the research misconduct charges against Kesler, but she said “the allegations were not initiated by university administrators.”
Rather than promote a family-friendly workplace, the administrative accommodations fostered widespread resentment among other professors who had to juggle childcare duties on their own, said Kesler, who has a small child.
According to Kesler and his lawyer, the misconduct charge stemmed from a disgruntled former graduate student’s complaint that Kesler published a scientific paper without giving her proper credit. The student was hired by Millspaugh two years after she left Columbia for Canada and just before lodging the complaint with Ryan. University investigators subsequently “raided” his office, Kesler said, removing three computers and other material in a move he said was meant to embarrass him and intimidate others from coming forward.
Gabrielle Coulombe, the graduate student whose email formed the basis of the misconduct charge, declined to discuss the case. Although the plagiarism charge against him wasn’t proved, Kesler said he is working with the academic journal that published the disputed research to issue an addendum crediting his former student’s contribution as part of an agreement with the university.