After almost 80 years in the same dark, labyrinthine building, the chemistry department will soon relocate from Frick to a state-of-the-art facility further down Washington Road. Slated to open within five years, the building will offer 30 faculty members a flexible, energy-efficient environment to conduct groundbreaking research.
The problem is, there may not be enough scientists to fill that space.
In the past year, five senior faculty members have left the chemistry department for positions at other universities, and several others have announced plans to retire. Together, these professors drew almost $12 million of the $38 million in active grants awarded to the department, according to last year's University Research Board report. Meanwhile, the department has neither hired new senior faculty nor significantly modernized its core research technology.
"I believe that the Princeton chemistry department is in crisis," said professor Kevin Lehmann, who worked in the department for 20 years before leaving this summer for the University of Virginia. "It is difficult to see how Princeton chemistry will recover to the strength they had just a few years ago, let alone move forward."
Interviews with administrators and current and former faculty portray a department at a critical point. Faculty who left describe a tightfisted, unresponsive administration that didn't try to address departmental problems.
"It was a difficult decision to move, [but] the administration made no effort to keep me," Lehmann said. "I sadly reached the conclusion that there is no future for physical chemistry at Princeton."
Remaining faculty and administrators, while acknowledging the need to rebuild, say they have the resources and enthusiasm for the task. In addition to the new building, a significant recruitment effort is underway, after a report last spring identified the major areas that need improvement.
"We have to make a substantial investment in both people and in facilities," President Tilghman said. "And we're prepared to do that ... You can't be a great research university and not have a strong chemistry department."
Indeed, with multiple faculty openings and a new building on the horizon, the remaining chemistry professors see an unprecedented opportunity to make the department world-class.
"The sky isn't falling," department chair Robert Cava said. "I'm not concerned about losing the department. Change is critical for growth."
Beginning of a trend
The recent spate of faculty losses began in the summer of 2004, when George McLendon, then department chair, accepted an offer to become Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke.
"McLendon wanted to move into a leadership position," chemistry professor Michael Hecht said. "[The move was] totally fitting with his personality."
In his new role as Princeton's competition, McLendon made an offer to chemistry professor Warren Warren, who joined Duke's faculty this year. At the same time, husband-and-wife professors Dan Kahne and Suzanne Walker moved to Harvard after more than 16 years at Princeton.
"My move was not motivated by problems in the chemistry department," Walker said. "I moved for new scientific opportunities and challenges."
On top of these departures, chemistry professors Giacinto Scoles, Tom Spiro and Maitland Jones have all announced plans to retire, with Scoles already in staged retirement.
It remains debatable whether the timing of these events is coincidental or indicative of deeper issues. But in a skit at last year's Christmas party, the graduate students in the department satirized the situation as a sinking ship, the "Fricktanic" — off of which professors are jumping, one by one.
Why the departures
Warren and Lehmann blamed their departures mainly on the administration, which they perceived as stingy and heavy-handed.
Lehmann said that University policies on endowed chair funds, as well as departmental contributions to startup packages for new faculty, have made it more difficult to attract professors and fund research.
Unlike at other top universities, he said, endowed chair funds at Princeton go toward reducing salary costs instead of supporting research. "How can Princeton hope to rebuild with such tightfisted policies?" Lehmann said.
Especially in interdisciplinary efforts, Warren added, "Princeton's competitors invest far more money ... than Princeton does." Duke's photonics program, for example, has recently hired more than a dozen professors and built a new building. Unlike Princeton, Warren said, Duke has projected an image of "aggressively moving to strengthen the physical sciences."
The lack of financial support from the University is particularly debilitating, Warren said, because the University receives relatively little federal research money.
According to a 2004 report by the Lombardi Program on Measuring University Performance, which compiles and publishes government data, Princeton ranked 68th in the country in federal research expenditures. This is 26th among private universities and 6th in the Ivy League. Though most universities ranked ahead of Princeton have medical schools that usually draw federal funds, others, such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon, do not.
In the long term, such a low ranking is "unstable, and is becoming more so as the cost of advanced instrumentation increases," Warren said.
Decline in trust
Lehmann also cited a lack of administrative support as a reason for his departure. Despite departmental consensus, he said, Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin recently canceled one search for an experimental physical chemist, and refused to allow another appointment in that field to go through.
"The administration has humiliated the department in the past two years," Lehmann said. "The dean's heavy-handed actions revealed an arrogance that would be comical were it not so destructive."
Asked about Lehmann's claims, Dobkin said he could not "comment on those who have left, those we chose not to hire or those we are pursuing" out of "respect for the privacy of the people involved."
Even when attempts were made to improve the department — as with the report issued last year — the administration did not solicit appropriate faculty involvement, Lehmann said. Professors were unable to review a draft or make recommendations before the final report was written, he said, and could only read the final report in the chair's office.
All this convinced Lehmann that the administration may be more involved, but that the department is still "not trusted to make the decisions" that other departments routinely make.
Warren and Lehmann also questioned the administration's priorities. Even with a new building, they said, the department will have to deal with the more important questions of people and modern instrumentation.
"A building will help, but it is not the whole solution, or even most of the solution," Warren said. "The University has to invest in people and infrastructure; the core of the instrumentation on campus is not competitive with many other well-known universities."
Instead of the building, Lehmann said, a more effective use of the money would be to provide fellowships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as endowed research support for faculty.
"If given a budget of $100 million and a free hand to most effectively improve the chemistry department," he said, "I do not believe a single member of the department would choose to spend it all, or even most of it, on a building to replace Frick and Hoyt." Fellowships and research support would "have a far greater impact than the new building."
Efficient use of the building money — which comes largely from sales of Alimta, a cancer drug developed at the University by emeritus professor Edward Taylor — is particularly important in the context of dwindling federal grants for academic research.
"Princeton has to decide what it wants to be: a primarily undergraduate institution that dabbles in research, or a major research university that includes undergraduate education as a priority," Warren said. "It has the resources to take either path — arguably, more resources than any other university in the world. It is not clear to me, after 23 years at Princeton, which path it will take."
Shining a spotlight
University administrators said they don't need to make that choice. Instead, they are prepared to offer a new infusion of resources, enough to make the department a major center for research while retaining its emphasis on undergraduate education.
"We're going to make a substantial investment in enhancing everything about the chemistry department," Tilghman said. "This is a real window of opportunity, and we're excited about that."
Explaining the department's current troubles, Tilghman acknowledged that "the spotlight hasn't been put on the department for a few years."
"But also, it's the tide," she added. "A sine wave. If you'd been here in 1982, you would have said, 'Oh my God, mol bio is in terrible shape at Princeton; the University has to do something.' And I would have agreed with you, because I remember those days. So the University shone a spotlight on life sciences and made a big investment, both in facilities and hiring a lot of new people ... And no one can imagine Princeton today without a really strong mol bio department."
"Part of what my job is," Tilghman said, "is to identify where we could really become better. And then try to marshal the intellectual resources and the financial resources to make that happen."
In chemistry's case, the University's involvement began last January, with a committee chaired by Dean of the Graduate School William Russel. Formed to provide a roadmap for the future of the chemistry department, the committee issued its report last spring.
That report, which Tilghman took to the board of trustees last year, identified the areas of research that were particularly important to reinforce, said professor Erik Sorensen, a member of the committee.
"We've decided to pursue two broad themes to strengthen the department," Sorensen said. "Those are chemistry's interface with materials science and nanoscience, and the interaction of chemistry and biology."
Both biological chemistry and physical chemistry, which Princeton is traditionally strong in, were hit hard by the recent turnover. Walker and Kahne are chemical biologists, and Lehman, Warren and Scoles are physical chemists.
As a result of the report, Tilghman said, the trustees approved hiring an architect for the new building, as well as expanding the recruitment effort for junior and senior faculty.
"The administration is taking seriously the effort of creating at Princeton a world class effort in chemistry," Dobkin said. "We realize that such an effort may be costly and are willing to commit the resources necessary."
In the short term, this commitment means three active faculty searches, one for a tenured position and the other two for assistant professors, department chair Cava said. "We're looking for people most interested in influencing the future of the department," he said.
In the long run, Tilghman hopes to repeat the success of the molecular biology department: "Our ambition, of course, is not just to regain where we were," she said. "But in fact to become substantially better. We wouldn't be doing all this just to maintain steady state."
Painful as it was, the past year may have been the beginning of a renaissance in Princeton chemistry.
"This is an exciting time, a spectacular opportunity," Hecht said. "We're going to have new faculty, a new building, new fields of science to explore.
"The chance to build a new department — how cool is that?"
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