Sponsor Appeal

The drama over the termination of a UA assistant professor and the future of marijuana research continues<

After making it clear UA policy prevents its administrators from commenting on personnel issues last week, the university released a letter it sent to Sue Sisley dated Wednesday, July 9 that provided "details" on the decision to not renew the marijuana researcher's contract.

The letter, forwarded to the Tucson Weekly on Saturday, July 19, was provided by George Humphrey, assistant vice president of the Arizona Health Sciences Center's office of public affairs "that explains more about her non-renewal."

Humphrey said in his July 19 email that the UA continues "in talks with the sponsor to continue the research and we will be proposing a new principal investigator to the sponsor." However, last week's cover story (See "Reefer Research Madness, July 17) explained that the UA assistant professor's sponsor for her federally-approved research on marijuana treating veterans with PTSD, continues to stand by her and wants her to remain the study's PI.

Humphrey added that there are two points that he believes demonstrates the UA is an active supporter of marijuana research—once again referring to SB 1443 that helped make way for marijuana research on state universities.

"The UA championed a change in Arizona law last year to allow marijuana research on campus," he wrote. The second point he added is that, "It was a UA team that did the scientific literature review that helped inform Arizona's recent decision to allow TSD to be used as palliative care for veterans with PTSD."

The law Humphrey refers to, SB 1443, is a statute that allows marijuana research on state college campuses to address a 2012 state law that prohibited posession and use of medical marijuana on campuses.

However, in our last story, Sisley told the Weekly that she believes the UA is on a mission to make sure it doesn't come across as a research institution that won't support controversial research or is controlled by the political whims of state lawmakers. Sisley said she believes her dismissal isn't about job performance, but political pressure from state Senate President Andy Biggs.

In the July 19 letter from the UA to Sisley, signed by Skip Garcia, senior vice president for health sciences at the UA Arizona Health Sciences Center and Stuart D. Flynn, dean of the UA College of Medicine in Phoenix, that while not required to "provide specific reasons for their nonrenewal decisions ... we certainly appreciate that you may feel frustrated with the University's process, and therefore are providing you with the following details regarding these decisions."

According to the letter, a strategic change in the UA's Telemedicine Program, of which Sisley worked, to focus on rural health profession outreach and education contributed to a decision to discontinue her role after Sept. 29, 2014.

Evidently, Sisley's past titles were also part of the decision. Garcia and Flynn wrote that a review of her appointments and her terminated role in the Telemedicine Program left her, well, title-less.

" ... Your courtesy (Associate) faculty title (Clinical Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine – Phoenix, Department of Psychiatry), was approved in 2007 by Dean Flynn. There was a brief period during which you held a paid clinical lecturer title, but in November 2008, your volunteer Associate title was reinstated," they wrote.

"As a faculty Associate, your title carried no salary, was offered in connection with your work in the Telemedicine program, and could be terminated at any time without notice. Because your position in Telemedicine will terminate in September, a courtesy faculty title no longer would be appropriate."

The final detail from the letter is Sisley's role as coordinator of special projects for the UA College of Medicine in Phoenix. The position was dependent on the availability of external funding, which as of late was an interagency service contract with the Arizona Department of Health Services. "The majority of the contract deliverables were to be completed by February 15, 2014, and the University expects the completion of this contract by mid-September. With its completion, your participation in this program no longer would be supported."

Whatever the reasons for Sisley's termination, her attorneys made it clear in their appeal, submitted Tuesday, July 15, that they believe the UA has refused to provide documented reasons for her termination. "The decision to effectively terminate seemed to take place in an environment of outside political pressure, but these assumptions cannot be verified due to the University's aforementioned refusal to provide grounds, evidence, or a hearing with regard to the instant matter. This procedure has been rendered an empty formality," her attorneys state in the appeal.

Without evidence or a hearing, Sisley "finds herself in the Kafkaesque position of trying to address non-existent accusations that have nonetheless deprived her of her career and research."

The Veterans Administration statistic, that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day due to untreated or undertreated PTSD, the attorneys ask that even if there is a small chance her research could save lives, why would the UA prevent that from occurring?

"The University of Arizona has a wonderful opportunity—a teachable moment—to admit that it's erred in this matter and reinstate Dr. Sisley. She is essential to the immediate implementation of research that could give much-needed help to those who have served our country. Reinstating Dr. Sisley would be the best way that the University could serve our cherished, yet wounded, veterans."

Humphrey said the UA continues to talk to Sisley's sponsor, MAPS, to find a new PI for the study. However, that continues to go against everything MAPS has publicly stated—where Sisley goes so does MAPS and the research.

In a July 11 letter to Caroline Garcia, UA associate vice president for research, from MAPS Executive Director Rick Doblin, their declaration of allegiance to the terminated doctor is obvious and how further talks with change that is unclear.

"It is my understanding that Dr. Sisley is appealing her termination from the University of Arizona. MAPS adds our appeal to hers that you reconsider and reinstate her at the University of Arizona," Doblin wrote. " ... MAPS will continue to partner with Dr. Sisley through our next challenge to secure a supportive home for this crucial work, ideally still at the University of Arizona."

To read all correspondence provided to the Weekly, as well as Sue Sisley's appeal, visit The Range at daily.tucsonweekly.com.