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A biohazard area inside Trudeau Institute  (Photo: Brian Mann)
A biohazard area inside Trudeau Institute (Photo: Brian Mann)

Trudeau Institute wins big grants, but big questions remain

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Over the last month, the Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake has announced that its scientists have received Federal grants worth more than $12 million. Late last year, the immunology lab received another $1.2 million from the state of New York to help modernize its facilities.

That's welcome news for one of the North Country's biggest private employers. But Trudeau still faces big questions about its financial stability and about leadership at the institute. Brian Mann joined Martha Foley.

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Trudeau board chairman Benjamin Brewster (Photo: Trudeau Institute)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Who authorized the three-year effort to move Trudeau Institute?

Current and former top officials at Trudeau Institute are sparring over who knew about the long-running effort to move the laboratory that continued in secret from 2008 through early 2011.  Current chairman Benjamin Brewster now says that the project was carried out through most of that period without the board’s knowledge or consent. 

“Trudeau management have every right to meet with their counterparts and perhaps even explore opportunities as they did,” Brewster wrote in an email.  “But they did so on their own in 2008 and 2009.” Brewster said he and then-chairman Henry “Sandy” Fenn were first informed about on-going negotiations with developers of a new research park in Port St. Lucie, Florida, in February 2010.  That’s when then-president David Woodland and vice president for institutional advancement Terry Gach “described to Mr. Fenn and Mr. Brewster an opportunity offered by a Florida developer.”

If true, that would mean Woodland and Gach, who have both left the Institute, took significant steps in negotiating and making financial arrangements with potential partners in Florida without notifying or gaining approval from Trudeau’s board.  During 2008 and 2009, the pair traveled to Florida and they solicited a Florida-based businessman “to cover the cost of an analysis” of relocating Trudeau.  According to a leaked internal memo, that consultant’s report cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

But Brewster’s account conflicts sharply with the story told by Woodland, who maintains that he informed members of the institute’s influential finance committee about the concept of relocating the laboratory “early in 2009.”  According to Woodland, those board members felt that the idea was “too controversial” and they directed him to remove it from a planning document being prepared for review by other board members.

“They did not ask me to cease that line of investigation, preferring to keep all options open,” he recalled, in an email.  “There is absolutely no way that I would have continued investigating this option if the board’s finance committee had ordered me to stop.”  

Brewster declined to comment on Woodland’s assertions and institute spokeswoman Kim Godreau also refused to disclose who served on Trudeau’s finance committee in 2009.  What is clear, however, is that when Woodland disclosed the full extent of his talks with Florida officials in 2010, some members of the lab’s executive committee were angered.  “We had a bit of a raucous executive committee meeting,” Woodland acknowledged. “They felt that we had gone too far along the road before we informed them.  I would argue vigorously with that, but certainly there were some people who felt that.”

In the weeks since the Enterprise and North Country Public Radio first reported that efforts to move Trudeau from its current campus began much earlier than previously known, some critics have described Woodland and Gach’s efforts as inappropriate and deceptive.  In a letter to the editor sent to the Enterprise, former institute board member Lee Keet, who maintains close ties at the laboratory and whose brother serves as a trustee, complained that the project was carried out “without board knowledge or authorization, and [Woodland] hid his efforts from them for two years.”

Woodland, who announced his departure from Trudeau in July 2011, has acknowledged that he worked deliberately to keep some board members in the dark about a possible move, fearing that they would “kill” the project.  But he insisted that much of the secrecy resulted from decisions made by board officials.  “I do remember being concerned that there had not been full disclosure of the executive committee’s activities to the full board,” Woodland wrote.

Indeed, after Trudeau’s executive committee was informed of the Florida prospect early in 2010, the group authorized Woodland and Gach to continue negotiations.  They also chose to keep the effort secret from other board members.  In the months that followed, Fenn, Brewster and other members of the executive team approved additional actions, including a formal application that was sent to the state of Florida in March of 2010, asking for $88 million in incentives to pay for a possible move. 

The full board of directors wasn’t informed about these steps until months later, at an annual meeting held in August 2010.   The board then voted in January of 2011 to suspend all efforts to relocate the laboratory.  That decision sparked criticism from some faculty and staff at Trudeau, who felt that moving at least part of the facility might secure more stable long-term funding for immunology research. 

But others have argued that the laboratory’s leadership should have intervened to halt the relocation effort much sooner.  “Trudeau institute needs not only new management but a new board,” wrote former institute chairman Robert Lievense, in a public letter sent to the Enterprise.  “This public display of incompetence is unacceptable.  The Trudeau Institute has been in crisis mode for way too long.”

Leaked internal memos suggest that many faculty and staff have also become concerned about secrecy and the quality of board leadership at the laboratory.  In a letter published in the Enterprise, chairman Brewster argued that “aggressive steps” are being taken to improve operations. “We have decided to replace Dr. Woodland’s position as director of the institute with a chief executive officer who can place more emphasis on strategic leadership, business development and fundraising,” Brewster wrote, adding that a new CEO should be in place in the next several months.

Adirondack Daily Enterprise reporter Chris Knight and managing editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.


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