Lerman’s future in question

By BenitaZepeda

Mystery surrounds the status of Zafra Lerman, longtime head of Columbia’s Institute for Science Education and Science Communication, as an unverified report circulated on campus last week that the internationally known chemist and teacher is no longer employed by the school.

No one in the college administration would discuss the matter with The Chronicle,  even to directly address the question of whether or not she still works for Columbia, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.

Lerman, a 1960 graduate of the Weizman Institute in her native Israel, and an internationally known scientist, educator and peace advocate, has worked at Columbia since 1977, when she became the first science faculty member at Columbia.

As chairwoman of what shortly afterwards became the Science and Mathematics Department, she built the department into a respected part of Columbia’s academic structure.

As The Chronicle reported on Dec. 1, 2008, Lerman was one of the highest paid figures at the college after Carter, and has consistently been the top compensated employee with the exception of officers, directors and trustees.

Lerman has been a lightning rod for controversy throughout her tenure,  and in 1991 she was moved out by the administration as department chairwoman after a dispute with members of her own faculty.  The Science Institute was created at that time in what was widely considered an effort by the college to compensate her for her removal as Science and Mathematics chairwoman.

A visit to the Science Institute on Friday found Lerman not on the premises and Toni Campbell, her longtime administrative assistant, told The Chronicle, “The provost informed us that Zafra is off-campus for the foreseeable future.”

But Provost Stephen Kapelke declined to discuss the matter because of the college’s policy against “commenting on personnel matters.”

Columbia’s policy states that personnel matters are not to be discussed or commented on.

During the past week, The Chronicle made dozens of phone calls to people employed by the college who are in a position to know Lerman’s status. Many inquiries, including ones directed to President Warrick L. Carter’s office, were redirected to the college’s public relations office.

However, Diane Doyne, associate vice president of Public Relations, Marketing and Advertising, told The Chronicle that she did not know anything about the situation and that Columbia has a policy against discussing personnel matters.

Campbell said that the provost informed the Science Institute to continue conducting business as usual. She also stated that the fourth Malta conference, “Frontiers of Chemical Science: Research and Education in the Middle East—A Bridge to Peace,”  is still being held on Nov. 14 in Jordan, even though Lerman founded the peace conferences.

Nicholas B. Kalm, president of Reputation Partners, a firm that provides communication counseling and strategies,  spoke to The Chronicle on Lerman’s behalf.

“It would be premature to make any comment on Lerman’s employment status,” Kalm said.  “As a tenured professor,  she fully expects to be able to continue her work on behalf of the students of Columbia Collegefor years to come.”

When asked if Lerman would fight to retain her position, Kalm reiterated that even though it is too soon to comment on her status as a professor at the college, Lerman is prepared to defend her reputation and her job.

“Yes, Lerman intends to continue her work at Columbia College,” Kalm said. “If that means that she must enforce her rights as a tenured professor, she will do so through all legal means.”

Kalm also said that Lerman has built a life and career with the college and that during her tenure, she has been the recipient of many national and international awards. He also said she has helped to raise more than $7 million in funding for the college.

“She is committed to continuing the tradition of excellence, education and acclaim she has worked to garner for the college throughout her tenure,” Kalm said, “and will fight whatever battles are necessary to ensure that tradition continues.”

Kalm said that Lerman believes her current problems began when she voiced her own opinions on a Columbia matter.

“Earlier this year, Lerman learned that Columbia College had been singled out as an institution that discriminates in its employment practices,” Kalm said. “She reported that information and her own views to the college.  She believes that was the beginning of her current problem.”

Kalm said the college’s “overt actions” began when Lerman returned from delivering a lecture at the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Institute in Oslo, Norway.

As The Chronicle has reported, other earlier litigation and controversy surrounded Lerman and The Science Institute when an investigation was conducted by the college regarding the source of the infamous “Wacky Warrick” Web site.  The investigation led to a midnight raid of the lab in the Science Institute, and found former employee, Mark Phillips, to be the source.

After the raid, Lerman voiced her outrage of the way the investigation was handled without a warrant.

At the week’s end, Lerman’s employment status seemed to still be in limbo.