Tenured UK professor accused of research misconduct resigns before termination hearing

·3 min read

A tenured professor at the University of Kentucky has tendered his resignation, just days before the UK Board of Trustees was scheduled to hold a hearing on whether to terminate his employment.

An attorney for Xianglin Shi and a university spokesman confirmed Friday that Shi has resigned effective June 15. The board hearing was scheduled for June 16.

Shi, a professor in the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology in the College of Medicine who studied metal toxicity and cancer, and his wife, Zhuo Zhang, a fellow UK professor, had been accused by the university of significant research misconduct regarding published papers.

UK began investigating in 2018, and multiple papers involving them were retracted.

An internal committee made up of UK researchers spent a year looking into the matter and completed a 1,000-page report “that found several examples of falsified or fabricated data that were among numerous irregularities in seven grant proposals and in at least 13 scholarly papers sampled from their work,” according to the university.

UK said in 2019 that it was moving toward firing Shi and Zhang unless they resigned.

Zhang resigned earlier in the process, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said. A research scientist who worked in Zhang’s lab, Donghern Kim, was also fired in connection with the alleged wrongdoing.

After an initial investigation found Shi guilty of research misconduct, two separate faculty panels heard the charges against him and agreed, recommending that the president pursue revocation of Shi’s tenure, Blanton said.

Tenure generally protects university professors’ employment, and it is extremely rare for the university to move to revoke tenure, though it is permissible in cases of incompetence, refusal or failure to perform duties and immoral conduct, according to UK Deputy General Counsel Shannan Stamper.

Blanton said officials believe the hearing scheduled for Tuesday would have been the first of its kind involving a tenured UK faculty member. The last time a similar situation occurred was about 40 years ago, and it involved a faculty member in the community college system, when it was part of UK.

Shi’s attorney, Bernard Pafunda, said in an interview earlier this week that “five outside experts who reviewed the materials said there was no research misconduct.”

“Nowhere in the investigation did they ever say that Dr. Shi directly or indirectly engaged in misconduct himself personally,” Pafunda said.

Pafunda also said Dr. Robert DiPaola, dean of the UK College of Medicine who will serve as acting provost at UK starting July 1, co-authored with Shi a 2018 paper that was in question for research misconduct.

He said Shi’s name was on the paper, but he didn’t gather the data, and Pafunda questioned why DiPaola wasn’t disciplined.

Blanton said in a statement that “the investigation committee found that DiPaola was not responsible for direct oversight of the research in the paper, and that the work was under the responsibility of Shi.

“Aside from retracting the paper, no further actions regarding DiPaola were recommended by the investigation committee or any of the other committees or panels, comprised of independent faculty, that reviewed findings in the case.”

Shi had been employed by UK since 2006. His annual salary was 243,394, according to a 2021 UK payroll database.

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