Documents: Dispute over Health Science Center leadership quickly veered out of control

Posted Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- One month before Dr. Scott Ransom was ousted as president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center, he was accused of conducting "a covert campaign of misinformation" against a proposed merger of the Fort Worth school with the main UNT campus in Denton.

Ransom, who was fired Dec. 21 by the UNT board of regents, insists that the whole thing was "politically motivated" and that the allegations were invented by UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson to justify the termination.

Because Ransom's $904,562-a-year contract had been renewed in September, he appeared to be in good standing to lead the Health Science Center into the future, including studying the possible merger and renewing efforts to secure an M.D. program.

But letters and emails recently obtained by the Star-Telegram show that the relationship between Ransom and Jackson was anything but rosy and reached a breaking point in November.

In a Nov. 20 letter, Jackson called Ransom "unresponsive and unprofessional" for denying that he had any role in scuttling the proposed merger.

"I suggest you stop repeating the embarrassing claim that you had nothing to do with the opposition to the merger study in Fort Worth as there is ample evidence to the contrary," Jackson wrote.

"I am aware, as are Board members, of your actions to undermine the merger study and inflame emotions in Fort Worth. Should it become necessary, I will act on what I know."

Ransom, who remains a tenured professor at the Health Science Center, said Jackson's accusations are baseless.

"I believe my dismissal was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the merger despite the paper trail attempted to be created by Chancellor Jackson," Ransom said in an email to the Star-Telegram.

"... If the Chancellor's statements are true, it should be easy to find several community leaders to confirm his story; however, I am aware of no confirming statements from any Fort Worth community leader."

One such leader, Arnold Gachman, a former chairman of the Health Science Center's foundation board, said Ransom kept his personal opinions out of the merger report.

"The problem in this deal was, the focus was on getting this M.D. program, and then we move over to the possibility of a merger," Gachman said. "It diverted attention."

The Health Science Center operates independently of the main campus in Denton, but a merger would put the two under the same administrative umbrella. Jackson said in August that officials believed a merger would help with research.

In the Nov. 20 letter, Jackson wrote that Ransom opposed the merger once he realized there was no guarantee that he would be president of the merged campuses. He became "determined to torpedo the entire process by, among other things, encouraging and fostering resentment in Fort Worth," Jackson wrote.

Similar sentiments were expressed in a Dec. 18 letter from regents Chairman Jack Wall, signaling the board's intention to fire him.

Ransom denied those allegations and said several regents, as well as Jackson, approached him about overseeing both campuses. Gachman wasn't privy to internal discussions but said it's understandable if Ransom wondered what his role would be after a merger.

"You can't possibly not have feelings about 'How do I see myself in this?'" Gachman said.

In his email to the Star-Telegram, Ransom said: "What personal motive would I have in disrupting the merger discussions? I was explicitly asked if I was interested in a much bigger President role that included leading the two campuses in Fort Worth and Denton. Clearly, new politics were introduced in the months of October and November, not related to the merger."

In an earlier letter, dated Nov. 15, Ransom told Jackson that he "was horrified to learn of your recent perceptions of me" and expressed hope that "we can establish our previous working relationship" by meeting more often.

Jackson dismissed the correspondence, calling it an "almost fawning letter," and said the problem was Ransom's misleading behavior.

"It's not what we talk about, or how much we talk, but what you don't choose to talk about that matters," Jackson wrote in the Nov. 20 letter. "If you cannot tell me the truth about major issues, then more meetings would accomplish nothing."

'No intention of' resigning

Ransom and Lane Rawlins, president of UNT's main campus, had been chosen to lead a study on the possible merger, and they produced a 27-page report that weighed the pros and cons. The Denton campus has 33,715 students; the Health Science Center has 1,949.

An accompanying executive summary found little to support a merger, saying "the group could not identify significant short term benefits (approximately 3-5 years after the merger) to the merger. The issue of long-term benefits, however, is much more difficult to assess."

The study group said "as long as two major issues -- seamless accreditation and formula funding levels -- could be resolved favorably, a merger could be undertaken if approved by the Regents and the Legislature. It was noted that the exact nature of a proposed merger was unclear."

After reviewing the report, Jackson tabled the merger discussions and pulled the item from the board of regents' agenda Nov. 15.

Eleven days later, Ransom said, Jackson suggested that he look for another job.

That same day, Jackson sent an email to the board of regents, saying he had told Ransom that he must obtain permission before contacting board members. He also said that the Dec. 11 board meeting "may present some opportunity for a personnel discussion."

Ransom said Jackson asked him to resign during a phone conversation Dec. 10.

That same week, emails show, Jackson was pushing for a meeting to obtain Ransom's letter of resignation.

"The purpose of the 2 p.m. meeting will be to finalize a letter from you to Chairman [Jack] Wall and the Board confirming the plans you are making for 2013 that you described to me verbally and generally in our last two meetings of November 26 and December 10," Jackson wrote Dec. 13.

The next day, Jackson wrote to Ransom that it was "not acceptable" that he had not heard from Ransom to confirm a meeting time. Ransom replied that he had not agreed to step down.

"I have never implied nor suggested any intention of resigning from my position," Ransom wrote. "I have not given verbal notice and have no intention of providing a letter of resignation or statement indicating that I intend to resign prior to the expiration of my contract."

In a Dec. 18 letter, Wall, the board chairman, repeated the accusation that Ransom had ignored "explicit" instructions from regents and had opposed a merger once he couldn't secure a promise that he would be president of the merged campuses.

In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Jackson said Ransom was given ample opportunity to explain his position.

"Dr. Ransom had the opportunity not only on Dec. 21 but for weeks prior to that to communicate with us and to discuss different ways of resolving our differences," Jackson said. "The board to whom he reports and the chancellor to whom he reports did not find his explanations convincing. ... I supported the board's decision [to terminate Ransom] and I am comfortable that we are a better organization than we were two months ago."

'Wish him the best'

As president, Ransom received $678,562 in base pay and $226,000 in supplemental salary. In 2010, his total pay of $904,562 was the largest for a university administrator in Texas, according to a public employees database compiled by The Texas Tribune.

Ransom has no plans to leave Fort Worth. He is a tenured professor at the Health Science Center, making $324,480 since his dismissal as president.

Ransom said he is concentrating on teaching, doing research and writing two books.

He remains proud of his time as president, pointing to growth in students, faculty, degree programs, research dollars and fund-raising.

"The major success was transitioning a very low-performing culture to one of high performance with accountability and outcome orientation," Ransom said.

Ransom, who came to Fort Worth in 2006 from the University of Michigan, said he raised the profile of the Health Science Center to where it is "now seen as a developing gem."

Many local leaders point to successes during his tenure, including the opening of the Institute for Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Research in 2007 and the Medical Education and Training Building in 2010.

Ransom also attracted new attention to the institution as it works to open the UNT System School of Pharmacy.

Community leaders, including Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, praised his efforts.

"Scott did a great job ... and we absolutely wish him the best," Price said.

"He served at the pleasure of the board of directors, and I won't question their decision. I enjoyed working with Scott, and I look forward to working with [interim President] Dr. Michael Williams as well."

Members of two support groups, the Health Science Center Foundation board and the board of visitors, say they are focused on moving forward.

"You can be supportive of Dr. Ransom and chagrined at what came forward, but you definitely don't want to stop supporting the Health Science Center," said Robert Mitchell, a member of the board of visitors.

Staff writers Diane Smith and Barry Shlachter contributed to this report.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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