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News and views for UB faculty and staff


Updated October 15, 2015

UBF should open its books

Published May 1, 2014

To the Editor:

The UB Foundation (UBF) manages a portfolio worth nearly a billion dollars. It derives from UB’s endowment, individual and corporate contributions, revenues from university-affiliated entities and mandatory fees levied on university activities. In an October 2013 meeting with the UB Faculty Senate, UBF Director Edward Schneider said the UBF follows the UB administration’s yearly spending plans, and that “These plans should be available from the university leadership.”

Accordingly, in November, the Faculty Senate asked that “the president and administration of the University at Buffalo make available the budget of the UBF and its associated foundations as if it were subject to FOIL.” In a March letter to the chair of the UB Faculty Senate, President Tripathi said the UBF budget is outside his “purview” as UB president. He told the Faculty Senate Executive Committee that he does not have the legal authority to force the UBF to open its books. According to one executive committee member, UB English Professor Kenneth Dauber, President Tripathi added that he would not even request them to do so.

This nimble maneuver leaves two questions unanswered. First, it may be true that, as a UBF trustee, President Tripathi cannot unilaterally release its copies of the yearly spending plan. But President Tripathi, working as a New York State civil servant, plans how the university spends unrestricted UBF funds. So how can he refuse to share this spending plan with the people who pay him to draw it up, the citizens of New York?”

Second, if he refuses to deliver the UBF spending plans after the Faculty Senate’s collegial request, will he also refuse a FOIL request? UB Law Professor Martha McCluskey has commented, “As a public official, President Tripathi has the legal authority (and presumably the legal duty) to open records of UB’s crucial decisions about UBF money to the Faculty Senate and to the public.”

The debate over transparency at shadowy university foundations extends beyond UB. In 2011, after two scandals, California established a sweeping transparency law for all its college and university foundations. In 2012, the statewide SUNY Research Foundation, which is tasked to support scientific research, reversed its long-standing policy and agreed it is subject to New York State’s FOIL laws.

A comptroller’s audit had found serious abuses, including $130,000 for international travel and purchase of personal items like computers, an iPad and groceries by a Buffalo State official and his wife, and thousands for the SUNY Chancellor’s club memberships and bar tabs. In 2011, Research Foundation President John O’Connor resigned after revelations that he had given a no-show job to the daughter of then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. The SUNY Research Foundation is now subject to FOIL.

Last November, the president of SUNY Upstate Medical Center resigned after news broke that corporate sources had supplemented his income through a non-transparent “chief administrative officers fund.”

Federal and state investigations are underway. There are bills in both the Senate and the Assembly that would make university foundations subject to FOIL — just as the UB Faculty Senate has recommended. They are currently stalled, partly because these very foundations, including the UBF, have paid lobbyists to fight them.

Closer to home, in 2010, the board of a UBF affiliate organization awarded an eight-figure contract to a local building firm. Its CEO was the son of one board member, the brother of another. The same year, another affiliate made illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of Erie County Executive Chris Collins, threatening the non-profit status of the university endowment.

In 2009, that UBF affiliate awarded a bonus of $225,560 to UB President John B. Simpson. In FY 2011-12, it awarded him $286,472, ostensibly for working 40 hours a week, though he had already left state employment. More than a year after UB shut down its Shale Resources and Society Institute, we still do not know if it used the UBF or one of its affiliates to hide corporate contributions that might have compromised its academic integrity by nudging it to provide pro-hydrofracking propaganda. We do know that the Shale Institute offered corporate contributors the opportunity to shape its agenda, and that one UB professor associated with it referred to its prospective UBF budget as a “slush fund.”

Financial conflicts of interest, illegal campaign contributions, political lobbying, corporate-style bonuses and golden handshakes, and suspicions of academic integrity corrupted by secret corporate money: This is what we have to fear from a lack of transparency at the UBF. The New York State Senate and Assembly higher education subcommittees are trying to make university foundations  subject to the Freedom of Information Law. The UB Faculty Senate has requested the same thing. Foundations have vital work to do in the modern university. The UB Foundation will be able to do that work better if the lights are on.

James Holstun

Professor of English

Quinn’s firing contrary to spirit of UB athletics

Published October 16, 2014

An open letter to the UB faculty:

For many years as a UB faculty member (26 in all), one of the things I was most proud of during my tenure (1974-2000) was our decision as a university to embrace Division I athletics. Not just the fact that we did it, but how we did it. At every step the primary concern was that it be a part of the academic fabric of the university. Of course, we wanted teams that won, but more importantly, we wanted athletes who graduated and became responsible citizens. We wanted coaches who understood our concerns about academics and character. Most importantly: We did not want to win at any cost. Nor did we want coaches who had to worry about whether they could support their families if some kid had a bad afternoon on the court or field.

Since leaving UB, one of the many things I have followed closely is the progress of its athletic program.  Before today, I have never been ashamed of our actions in beginning it. I thrilled with the success of the football team under Coach Gill, and as well the media attention about the refusal to play a segregated bowl game. And watching the NFL draft this past spring with the UB athletes front and center was equally exciting, not just for the athletic talent but for the confident and articulate young men who represented UB.  The very public interactions last week between Branden Oliver and Khalil Mack represented all that was good about college athletics and what we were trying to achieve in embracing it. Just as serious questions are being asked nationwide about the role of college football and what it should be, UB is where others in their hearts know they should be.

Then this morning came the news about the firing of Coach Jeff Quinn. I do not know Coach Quinn. But he obviously knows how to inspire and train young men. And he clearly appreciates his role as faculty member in a university. He is exactly what we wanted years ago. Now, suddenly, he is gone — for losing a few games. Of course, he won last year with Gill’s recruits, just as the next guy will eventually win with his. One of the things that was special about UB was that we were NOT going to allow the athletic program to behave this way. If the faculty of UB stands by and tolerates this firing, then you will have lost control of this program forever.

I strongly urge you as faculty and students to demand his reinstatement and if necessary, clean house and eliminate those responsible for his firing. If not, you will find yourself perhaps with a few more wins, but will send a message to all Quinn’s successors that UB really is like everyone else — most of whom we despise.

William K. George

Former professor

Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering


UB scientists applying engineering techniques to biology

Published October 15, 2015

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Hsu's article "Engineers turn E. coli into tiny factories for producing new forms of popular antibiotic," which describes the accomplishment of UB scientists in combatting antibiotic resistance by genetically modifying and metabolically engineering E. coli bacteria to produce variations of the antibiotic erythromycin. Their feat marks another triumph for the relatively new science of synthetic biology — the application of engineering techniques to biology in order to produce new life forms useful for solving global health and environmental problems, and for advancing the scientific understanding of life itself.

As noted in the article, Dr. Pfeifer and colleagues have been pursuing this goal for more than a decade. Their persistent hard work is revealed in the following milestones found in a PubMed search of journal articles:

  • March 2001, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. The bacterium that naturally produces erythromycin is difficult to work with. More "genetically amenable microbes" like E. coli were developed as heterologous (different species) hosts for production of erythromycin.
  • November 2003, Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Reported the successful biosynthesis of the compound yersiniabactin in E. coli. This success will aid in the future production of similar compounds like erythromycin.
  • January 2008, Metabolic Engineering. "Chromosomal engineering" was used to place in E. coli the genes required for production of the compound known as 6dEB, "a precursor to the antibiotic erythromycin."
  • May 2009, Microbial Biotechnology. The exploration and adjustment of "gene dosage levels" in the metabolic pathways responsible for production of the erythromycin precursor 6dEB in E. coli.
  • April 2010, BMC Systems Biology. Described a "genetic algorithm and elementary mode analysis" to find metabolic pathways for production of the "industrially relevant products" ethanol and lycopene. This same system can be applied toward the production of any desired product.
  • November 2010, Chemistry & Biology. Erythromycin is naturally produced by the bacterium Saccharopolyspora erythraea. In this study, the genes to produce erythromycin were transferred to E. coli bacteria and the metabolic pathways were modified to produce two variations or "analogs" of erythromycin.
  • June 2011, Biotechnology and Bioengineering. The authors "over-express three different pathways" for production of erythromycin in E. coli in order to develop possible variations of erythromycin.
  • January 2012, Biotechnology Progress. Production of erythromycin in several variations of metabolically engineered E. coli was compared.
  • January 2013, Journal of Visualized Experiments. "The Logic, Experimental Steps, and Potential" for production of erythromycin in E. coli was described. The goal was to "set the stage for future engineering efforts to improve or diversify production."
  • July 2013, Biotechnology Progress. The authors reduced the total number of genes transferred to E. coli to streamline and stabilize the metabolic process. This led to increased volume of erythromycin production and also suggested other possible changes for metabolic pathway engineering.
  • September 2013, Metabolic Engineering. Production of erythromycin in E. coli requires not only the transfer of 19 foreign genes, but also the engineering of E. coli metabolic pathways to produce compounds necessary for erythromycin formation. This study compared three possible pathways.
  • November 2013, Metabolic Engineering. Two metabolic pathways in E. coli were interchanged in order to produce new forms of erythromycin. Two new forms were produced, both "exhibited bioactivity" against antibiotic resistant bacter
  • June 2014, Current Opinion in Plant Biology. Summarizes success achieved thus far using the tools of metabolic engineering and synthetic biology to produce desired compounds such as the anti-malaria drug artemisinin in E. coli and other heterologous hosts.

Hsu's article led me to read the research article she reported on: "Tailoring pathway modularity in the biosynthesis of erythromycin analogs heterologously" by UB scientists Guojian Zhang, Yi Li, Lei Fang and Blaine A. Pfeifer. They note that their success helps to clarify the scientific understanding of the mechanisms involved in producing complex metabolic products such as erythromycin within the cell. They conclude that their research will provide "additional metabolic engineering and synthetic biology tools? to other scientists in their efforts to provide useful products and to understand cellular mechanisms.

Thank you UB Reporter and Charlotte Hsu for informing us of the masterful achievement attained by scientists in UB's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering!


William Dale, UB EdM, Science and the Public Program,

Graduate School of Education