The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Fired UConn professor awarded $1.4M payout
Arbitrator rules Wang wrongly fired over financial connections
A respected University of Connecticut liver disease researcher has won a $1.4 million settlement after an arbitrator found the university wrongly fired her for allegedly failing to disclose financial connections to China.
The settlement, quietly paid to Professor Li Wang last year, marked the second time in a year that UConn was forced to spend big money after a termination was reversed. Former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie was paid more than $13 million over his 2018 firing.
Hearst Connecticut Media uncovered the payout, which placed Wang sixth on a list of the state’s highest paid employees in 2022, after obtaining documents from UConn through state Freedom of Information law. UConn had not previously disclosed the payment or Wang’s expected termination publicly.
A liver physiologist with a proven ability to obtain research funding, Wang was hired by UConn in 2014 and was scheduled to be terminated on September 20, 2019. She resigned the day before her termination became effective.
Wang soon ran afoul of the federal National Institute of Health and fell under a dark cloud at UConn over allegations that she did not disclose financial affiliations with the Wenzhou Medical University and National Natural Science Foundation of China.
Wang denied those allegations and in November 2021 the American Arbitration Association ordered UConn to reinstate her job and pay back wages, according to documents obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media.
Stephanie Reitz, a spokeswoman for UConn, said the university stands by its actions and declined further comment.
Wang could not be reached for comment.
Alleged Chinese connections
Michelle Williams, UConn associate vice president for research, informed Wang in a March 2019 letter that because she did not disclose her Chinese connections on NIH grant applications she was being suspended as a researcher for three years.
“Documents located on your computer… contradicts these denials,” Williams wrote in the letter obtained by Hearst Connecticut.
Williams added that “you admitted to recklessness and research misconduct regarding multiple submissions of an unfunded NIH grant application,” referring to inaccurate citations NIH found in her papers.
“You have engaged in a pattern of behavior that undermines the university’s ability to confidently ensure the integrity of your research program and to certify that you are credible and will be compliant in the commission of sponsored program activity,” Williams concluded.
The NIH backed UConn’s allegations and in letters to UConn officials agreed with its decisions regarding Wang. Documents obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media show that the NIH in 2018 first questioned whether Wang had disclosed financial affiliations with the Chinese institutions when applying for grant funding, a violation of NIH policy.
A January 2022 letter to a top UConn official – sent several months after the arbitrator ruled against UConn — shows that Michael Lauer, NIH director for extramural research, continued to support the university’s handling of Wang.
“A reasonable person would consider it more likely than not that Dr. Wang-UConn received financial support for her individual research from Chinese sources,” Lauer wrote.
“Looking back at this series of events, at Dr. Wang-UConn’s repeated statements in her publications, and at your thorough investigation’s findings, I wholly agree with you that it is more likely than not that Dr. WangUConn did not properly disclose to NIH her affiliation with Wenzhou Medical University and did not properly disclose research support,” Lauer said.
Asked for comment about the arbitrator’s decision, David A. Kosub, a NIH spokesman, said the agency “does not discuss grants compliance reviews on specific funded awards, recipient institutions,
or supported investigators, whether or not such reviews occurred or are underway.”
The arbitrator assigned to Wang’s case came to very different conclusions than the NIH and UConn. Wang asked the arbitrator to overturn her suspension as a principal investigator over alleged connections to China, her later termination by the university and failure of the university to pay her salary and benefits.
The “university did not have just cause to suspend Dr. Wang’s research, just cause to terminate Dr. Wang,” arbitrator Peter Adomeit wrote in his decision. “She did not falsify any record or provide false information.”
Adomeit noted that “her name appears in several applications on work that she did not directly participate in. She cited herself on research conducted in her lab which [was] done by a research scholar in her lab. The only offenses committed by Dr. Wang relate to citations to grants that suggest to the reader that she was the [principal investigator]. Dr. Wang erroneously cited herself on the Yale Liver and on [research paper] #443.”
Adomeit added “the amount of discipline – termination – bears no relationship to the offense of citation errors. She lost any chance to apply for grants. Her reputation in the scientific community has been seriously undermined. She went from being the second leading faculty member on NIH grants to being suspended and terminated. Her work history is impeccable. She was recognized for her ability to teach. Her research was considered ‘cutting edge.’ Her reputation was such that she accepted an invitation to be adjunct faculty at Yale University, which is ranked ninth in the world.”
The arbitrator ordered UConn to reinstate her to her job, provide all back pay and annual raises, return research equipment, pay operating expenses, and relocate her office to UConn Health in Farmington.