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Stanford Report, March 11, 1998

Decision on Pfefferbaum case: 3/11/98

Outside hearing officer upholds university position on Pfefferbaum questions

An independent hearing officer, asked by the faculty Advisory Board to determine disputed facts in the disciplinary case against Dr. Adolf Pfefferbaum, has upheld the university's position on all six questions before him.

Richard Marcus, a law professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, submitted his report to the Advisory Board last week.

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Pfefferbaum, professor of psychiatry, was charged last year with neglect of his academic duties after leaving his assigned position as an employee at the Stanford-affiliated Veterans Affairs (VA) Palo Alto Health Care System.

As part of his defense, Pfefferbaum contended that he was singled out for unfair treatment by the VA chief of staff, Dr. Richard Mazze, and thus was justified in leaving his VA position. It was these allegations of mistreatment that were rejected by the hearing officer.

The six issues of disputed fact were relevant to the question before the Advisory Board of whether Pfefferbaum's retirement from the VA, if not supported by sufficient cause, constituted neglect of his academic duties.

As to the first question before Marcus, Pfefferbaum had contended that he was not neglecting his duties by retiring from the VA, because he asserted he could have continued to work there on "without compensation" (WOC) status. Marcus concluded, however, that the university established by highly convincing evidence that the VA Palo Alto would have denied a request by the Medical School to let Pfefferbaum continue his work at the VA on WOC status following his retirement from the VA in 1996.

The second through sixth questions focused on Pfefferbaum's contention that he was justified in leaving his assigned position at the VA because, he says, Mazze improperly interfered with his ability to carry out his academic duties in five respective areas.

The first of these questions Marcus considered was whether Pfefferbaum's research space was curtailed to a greater degree than could normally be expected to follow from his loss of his administrative post as deputy chief of staff (DCOS). Marcus noted that the evidence presented on this question seemed in some ways "the most diffuse" and "required the most attention to details." He noted that while there was some evidence to support Pfefferbaum's claim that he lost some research space, the loss was approximately 85 square feet, or 1.5 percent of Pfefferbaum's total space.

In addition, the loss of space occurred before Pfefferbaum lost his DCOS post. Marcus concluded that the reduction was "de minimis in light of the fact that no proof was offered of any specific negative consequences for Pfefferbaum's research resulting from the reduction."

On the question of whether Pfefferbaum's research staff was curtailed to a greater degree than could normally be expected to follow from his loss of his administrative post as DCOS, Marcus noted that the loss of funding for one and a half positions on his staff was to be expected because administrative funds were used for their salaries while Pfefferbaum was DCOS. And with regard to clinical funding for other members of Pfefferbaum's research staff, Marcus found that the university demonstrated that he was not treated differently from other doctors at the VA.

"The cutback in clinical funding for research was stimulated by budgetary considerations that affected other units, and other Stanford doctors at [the VA] were similarly asked to justify their staffing," Marcus wrote.

The fourth issue Marcus ruled on was the issue of whether Pfefferbaum's ability to perform outside consulting services was hindered by a delay in VA approval that went beyond what could normally be expected. Marcus noted that the acting deputy chief of staff at the time "may have been unduly circumspect" when he received requests to approve outside consulting for Pfefferbaum and another professor, "but there is no reason in the evidence to conclude that he was acting in bad faith or in a way treating Dr. Pfefferbaum differently."

On the question of whether a proficiency report concerning Pfefferbaum circulated beyond normal channels, Marcus found that the report was not disseminated to anyone and that there was no evidence to the contrary.

Regarding the question of whether a letter of counseling was circulated beyond normal channels, Marcus noted that "the circumstances underlying the letter of counseling seem so abnormal that it is quite difficult to determine what 'normal channels' might be."

He noted that while Pfefferbaum offered some evidence that the normal practice at the VA with regard to letters of counseling is that they are not circulated outside the VA, "the evidence, as a whole, established highly persuasively that the Medical School, and particularly the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, had an intense and legitimate interest" in the topic of the letter, which included "matters of mutual concern, including personnel issues affecting Stanford faculty serving at [the VA]."

When asked to comment on the hearing officer's report, Pete McCloskey, Pfefferbaum's attorney said, "In every way Professor Marcus' findings reflect the position of the institution that has paid him."

Marcus was nominated by the Advisory Board and approved by both parties last July. Before writing his report, Marcus listened to the testimony of 14 witnesses ­ mostly Stanford faculty ­ during public hearings held during approximately four days over the past three months.

The attorney representing the university in this case, Eli Gould, declined to comment.

After listening to arguments from both sides during a final hearing, the Advisory Board will decide whether the hearing officer's findings are supported by substantial evidence and will make a recommendation to President Casper regarding whether Pfefferbaum has neglected his academic duties by leaving his position at the VA. If the Advisory Board concludes that he has, it will make a recommendation regarding what the disciplinary action should be. The Advisory Board is currently in the process of scheduling the final hearing. SR