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Professor sues FSU over chemistry school

Robert Holton says the university reneged on its promises and wants the millions he donated returned.

By GRAHAM BRINK
Published November 9, 2005


Professor Robert Holton made tens of millions of dollars for Florida State University with his discovery of a synthetic version of a potent cancer-fighting drug.

Holton and the university agreed to use a portion of the windfall to finance a chemistry school focused on Holton's specialty.

On Tuesday, Holton and his research foundation sued FSU, claiming the university has reneged on its part of the deal.

Holton wants the original vision of the school built. If not, he wants his millions back.

So how did a seemingly ideal undertaking between a world-renowned professor and a university eager to become a leader in scientific research turn so sour?

"If you ask me for some rational explantion of what happened, I won't be able to do it," Holton said.

FSU spokeswoman Browning Brooks would not comment about pending litigation, saying only that the university is committed to building a new chemistry building.

But it's not the project the sides originally agreed upon, Holton says.

Therein lies the problem.

In the early 1990s, Holton discovered a process to develop a synthetic version of the chemotherapy drug Taxol. The drug had been made from the bark of Pacific Yew trees, an expensive process that used enormous amounts of bark for every patient.

Holton's discovery made the drug widely available to patients, in particular those suffering from breast, ovarian and lung cancers. It is considered one of the most important cancer drugs.

Taxol generated about $350-million in royalties for Holton and FSU. Holton got about $140-million of that, and used a large portion to finance more cancer research through entities he established - MDS Research Foundation and Taxolog. FSU got about $210-million of the Taxol royalties.

In 1999, Holton and MDS entered into a contract with FSU to build a chemistry school with a focus on synthetic organic chemistry, Holton's specialty. The agreement was updated in 2002. The cost was to be $46-million.

MDS agreed to donate $11-million, which the Florida Legislature matched with $11-million from state coffers. Holton agreed to direct $18.5-million from a research fund, and the university would come up with the rest, according to the lawsuit.

Holton did not want to create a generalized chemistry school that could be found on many university campuses.

"The idea was to create a school that would make a lasting positive difference for future students, future faculty, the future of FSU and science in general," he said in an interview with the Times on Tuesday. "(Not) more of the same."

Eventually, the university balked about high salaries at the school. Officials also had qualms about how much of the school would be focused on synthetic organic chemistry.

After years of delay, the construction costs came in about $15-million over budget. Holton said he has offered to pay for the cost overruns out of his research fund.

In June, Holton and FSU president T.K. Wetherell butted heads.

Holton threatened to withdraw his donation and took his case to the FSU's board of trustees.

Wetherell shot back, saying the project would be taken in a different direction, one that was more focused on chemistry in general, instead of synthetic organic chemistry.

Holton said Tuesday the dispute never would have arisen under former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who okayed the original deals. Holton said he would not have sued if he thought there was a chance at reconciliation.

If the school isn't built as originally proposed, Holton and MDS want their money returned. The university has indicated it would give back $5-million of the donation from MDS.

But the lawsuit seeks the entire $11-million MDS donated and the $18.5-million from Holton's research fund, plus interest. A victory for Holton and MDS could force the university to give back the $11-million in matching funds from the Florida Legislature.

Without all that money, Holton did not know how the university could pay for the chemistry school it intends to build.

Holton said the university will likely claim that he was never given authority over a $50-million research fund set up after the Taxol royalties began rolling in. The university, he said, could try to keep the money as its own to go ahead with its chemistry school building.

Graham Brink can be reached at 727 893-8406 or brink@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 9, 2005, 00:39:17]


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