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Alzheimer's research director leaves USF

The resignation follows an investigation into sexual harassment allegations. With the move, the university loses millions of dollars and dozens of scientists.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003


TAMPA -- The head of the University of South Florida's largest Alzheimer's research center has resigned, taking with him millions of dollars and dozens of scientists.

Michael Mullan's resignation last month came as USF concluded a yearlong investigation of allegations he sexually harassed three women who worked for him.

His resignation had nothing to do with the accusations, Mullan said. The Roskamp Institute he headed merely outgrew the university, he said.

Mullen led the institute since it began in 1998 with a $5-million grant from Longboat Key philanthropist Robert Roskamp to develop a drug that could cure the degenerative brain disease.

The Roskamp Institute will move to Sarasota, while the related Memory Disorder Clinic, which Mullan also ran at USF, will move to another location in Tampa. Most of the 40 people who work at the two centers will accompany Mullan.

"The Roskamp Institute is recognized as one of the top institutions in Alzheimer's research," said USF professor Fiona Crawford, who worked at the institute and remains a supporter of Mullan. "This is a huge deal. It's very sad for USF."

USF is one of the preeminent centers of Alzheimer's research in the nation. Even without Roskamp, the university has dozens of scientists working on various aspects of research, including a vaccine.

The university also will soon be home to a $25-million research center thanks to Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City. Byrd, whose father died of the disease, earmarked the money in the state budget.

University officials downplayed the departure of Mullan, who was part of a British team of researchers who in 1990 discovered a gene that causes the disease, which produces dementia and memory loss in more than 4-million Americans.

"We're still one of the world's hotbeds of Alzheimer's research," said James Mortimer, director of USF's Institute on Aging, "and will continue to be so."

"He has to do whatever's best for him," said Robert Daugherty, dean of USF's College of Medicine. "We'll miss that research, but we'll continue to grow and seek other people."

USF president Judy Genshaft declined to comment. Other university officials refused to talk about Mullan or the sexual harassment allegations.

Some of the allegations date to 1997. USF launched its first investigation several years ago, but a second inquiry began after Daugherty arrived after September 2000.

The investigation concluded last month about the same time Mullan sent his Jan. 20 resignation letter to Genshaft. The report remains closed to the public to allow Mullan time to appeal. Mullan said he plans to appeal.

Mullan insisted Wednesday that his resignation had nothing to do with the investigation, which he said exonerated him.

"It's just rubbish," Mullan said. "That sounds like USF spin to me. If USF wants to put some spin on my resignation then that's what they do. This is the way USF does business."

Roskamp said he was aware of the allegations and the investigation when the institute began, but he looked into them and was not concerned about them. He said he fully supports Mullan.

"Dr. Mullan and I will be together, hopefully, forever," he said.

Mullan and Roskamp said they spoke to university officials seven months ago about leaving USF, even though the original $5-million gift does not run out until this summer.

"Eventually, you outgrow your space and eventually you grow up," Roskamp said. "It's time for us to go."

USF still is owed $80,000 for the remainder of the gift, which was administered through the school. USF spokesman Michael Hoad said the school will not try to get the rest of the money.

Mullan and his supporters said Daugherty was angry at Mullan for telling Byrd he should not give the $25-million state gift directly to USF. Byrd, who could not be reached for comment, chose to let a separate nonprofit group administer the money.

The Roskamp Institute has worked with and received millions of dollars in other grants and gifts from the federal government, private labs and other schools over the years. Last year, its budget was $4-million.

The institute has worked on discovering an antibody that would reduce two telltale characteristics of the disease, analyzing whether common drugs that ease joint pain might stave off the disease and determining how the immune system attacks the brain.

-- Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at 727-893-8472 or kumar@sptimes.com.

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