Rich is 68 years old and has been dean at UAB since October 2004, when he was recruited from Emory University in Atlanta. Rich certainly is in the age range where folks often get into retirement mode, and at first glance, nothing appears to be unusual about his planned exit.
But UAB's handling of the story makes me think something else could be going on. And our guess is that Rich's exit might have been precipitated by the possible arrival of health-care reform. (More on that in a moment.)
Here is the official UAB release, and you will notice that it is dated November 13, last Friday. Having been in the news business for 30-plus years, I know that organizations often choose Friday as the release date for stories they do not want to receive much attention. That is because:
(A) Something about the story is less than positive, and a Friday release means it will be in Saturday newspapers, the least read of the week;
(B) News staffs--print, broadcast, Web, etc.--tend to start gearing down for the weekend on Friday. That means reporters are less likely to ask tough questions on the last day of the work week. And when the following Monday rolls around, they probably have moved on to other news items; or
(C) All of the above.
Why might UAB try to "hide" the announcement that Dr. Robert Rich is stepping down? A quick check of the Legal Schnauzer archives provides several clues:
* UAB admitted in 2005 that it had engaged in research-funding fraud, essentially stealing millions of dollars from Medicare and other federal agencies that fund biomedical research. The Bush Justice Department let UAB off with barely a wrist slap, the university paying a $3.4-million penalty that was way less than one percent of the alleged total fraud. But the Obama administration, as part of its efforts to control health-care costs, has indicated that it intends to take a tough stand against such fraud, which is widespread at academic medical centers. Is UAB worried about that? Perhaps it should be. To be fair to Robert Rich, he inherited the research-funding fraud problem at UAB. Federal-court documents in Birmingham, indicate the problem started in the 1990s, long before Rich arrived. But given the virtual free pass UAB received from Bush-appointed federal prosecutor Alice Martin, it's safe to assume that the university has not cleaned up its act. Could Robert Rich be the fall guy for that failure? Could UAB be saying to the Obama administration, "Hey look, we've pushed our medical-school dean out the door, and we're going to play fair now. And by the way, please don't look too closely at our books"?
* UAB also has gone through an embarrassing episode of scientific research fraud, which resulted in the exits of Dr. Judith Thomas and Dr. Juan Contreras. This apparently happened solidly on Rich's watch, and several sources have told Legal Schnauzer that Contreras and Thomas almost certainly were the fall guy and gal for a more widespread problem.
* Perhaps most interesting to us is the fact that the UAB School of Medicine has become a haven for discriminatory treatment of international medical graduates (IMGs), particularly at its family-medicine residency program in Huntsville. As we have reported in several posts, at least five IMGs have left the UAB residency program in recent years after claiming that they had been the victims of discrimination. A federal jury in Birmingham found that UAB discriminated against Dr. Seema Gupta, an IMG from India, based on her Hindu religion. Dr. Edward Stellmacher, an IMG from Germany, has a pending discrimination lawsuit against UAB. And Dr. Rehan Puri, an IMG from Pakistan, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. Two other IMGs from India had to return to their home country before they could file legal actions. This all happened while Rich seemingly was sound asleep at the controls, and the whole problem could wind up costing UAB hundreds of thousands of dollars. If federal agencies hold the university accountable for its failure to abide by anti-discrimination laws, hundreds of millions of dollars that flow into Birmingham might be at risk.
Could I be making too much of this story? It's possible. Bob Rich is closing in on 70 years of age, and he might be ready to kick back for awhile. As far as I know, Rich's health is fine, but folks have been known to step down from stressful positions because of health concerns.
It should be noted, however, that the UAB press release says nothing about Rich planning to retire. It says he will assume a faculty position after giving up his role as dean. That makes me think that Rich's exit as dean was not his idea.
One thing, though, is certain: All is not hunky-dory on the medical side of the UAB campus. The administration has spent the past eight years sucking up to a Bush administration that was both corrupt and clueless. The new sheriff in Washington, D.C., has stated that he does not intend to look kindly upon universities that cheat the government out of health-care dollars.
Our guess is that, by kicking Robert Rich to the curb, UAB is trying to tell the Obama administration, "Hey look, clean hands!"
If the Obamaphiles decide to look beneath the surface, they will find that UAB's hands actually are filthy. And it is not all Bob Rich's fault--not by a long shot.