A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on the shattered career of “renowned AIDS researcher” Jeffrey Parsons, a psychologist who spent most of his career at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY). The Post’s story was about the settlement in a long-running civil case over Parsons’ use and abuse of grant monies. The settlement left Parsons’ career in ruins, saddling him with a personal debt to the federal treasury of $375,000. In a telling detail, to which I shall return momentarily, Hunter College was assessed a $200,000 liability of its own, also payable to the federal government.
The Jeffrey Parsons saga goes back nearly two decades. According to his Wikipedia page, Parsons’ research chronicled “the health risks associated with HIV transmission and HIV-related health outcomes.” Behind that dry description was a rolling, decades-long bacchanalia of alcohol, drugs, and sexual antics that makes the “bro culture” that got David Sabatini the bum’s rush look like a Sunday School outing. You can read the sordid details in a 2021 story by the Chronicle of Higher Education, aptly titled “The Biggest Mess.”
The obvious question arises: how was the “Biggest Mess” allowed to build over the span of so many years? The short answer is that Parsons was enabled by a cabal of high-level administrators at CUNY, Hunter College, and the Research Foundation of the City University of New York (RFCUNY). They were drawn in because it was very profitable for them to do so. Parsons was a research rainmaker for Hunter College: over his twenty-two-year career at CUNY, he brought in about $55 million in grants, mostly from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That is not to say that taxpayers got $55 million of research for their involuntary “investment” in Parsons’ work. Hidden in plain sight in that number is a dirty little secret: about $20 million of that went directly into CUNY coffers as “indirect costs.” In research grants, these are assessed as a percentage surcharge on the “direct costs” that go to support the actual research. Hunter College’s indirect costs rate is 56% of direct costs.
Indirect costs assessments are legal, but they are also a notorious source of administrative flim-flammery. The Parsons case is an example of this. CUNY administrators allowed Parsons to charge expenses that, ordinarily, would be disallowed under federal spending rules on grants: holidays to exotic locations, drunken parties peppered with outlandish sexual behaviors, frequent visits to gay bars, drugs, and humiliating demands made to subordinates—in one case, a demand that a newly hired researcher fellate a male stripper. This was all in the name of “research,” paid for out of what Parsons called his “lush fund,” which had been set up for him by CUNY and RFCUNY administrators.
The “lush fund” allowed everyone to maintain the fiction that federal spending rules were being followed, even as they were being flagrantly violated. And for many years, it worked, until the “toxic AF” culture in Parsons’ research group could no longer be ignored. And where did the “lush fund” come from? According to the settlement, indirect costs monies were used to set up a discretionary account that Parsons could tap to circumvent federal restrictions on indirect costs spending. Fraudulent reporting of outside consulting income by Parsons’ employees topped up the lush fund even more.
Parsons took full advantage of his personal cookie jar, charging explicitly disallowed costs to the lush fund, like his vacations, his parties, travel for family, double-billed invoices, and other infractions. Hunter College also had its share: it used indirect costs funds to pay Parsons “retention bonuses” of around $90,000, also disallowed by federal rules governing indirect costs spending.
The parties may have settled and signed their non-disclosure agreements, but that should not be the end of the story. Abuse of indirect costs money is a widespread problem that is corrupting the academic sciences. There is a great deal of money and power at stake. Indirect costs rates for American researchers are two to five times the rates for other countries with national research programs. In American universities, indirect costs are hedged about with impenetrable and collusive agreements between universities and federal funding agencies, all based upon vague and unverifiable projections of indirect costs expenditures. This gives universities considerable leeway for administrative mischief, which has included subverting the intellectual independence that scientists need to, well, do science. When administrators are called out on this, they accuse critics of having no idea what they are talking about, claiming that indirect costs monies are tightly governed and scrupulously audited, and that abuse is impossible. The Parsons story cuts the rug out from under that scam.
Indirect costs abuse has destroyed the integrity of the academic sciences. To restore integrity, the oxygen has to be cut off: allowable indirect costs must be slashed. Donald Trump proposed a cap of 10% for NIH grants, which was a good place to start, but it met fierce resistance from high-profile university administrators. In the end, the administrators won, and Congress actually rewarded them.
There is also a cultural lesson to draw from the Parsons saga. We live in a culture of victimhood, where supposedly oppressed groups—racial minorities, women, the sexually heterodox—have become the pampered pets of our institutions and society. They are sacralized, never to be criticized, called out, or held to standards that bind everyone else. Parsons got away with his malfeasance because he was a flamboyantly gay libertine, and so became just such a pampered pet, to be protected at every turn by those responsible for ensuring our institutions promote science, not the toxic miasma of our new religion: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion™.
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