The University of Southern California has agreed to apologise and to pay $50 million (£40 million) to the University of California, San Diego for poaching a renowned Alzheimer’s scientist and his lab.
The agreement, ending four years of legal battling over one of the US’ premier Alzheimer’s research groups, also requires USC to hand back lab data that the scientist, Paul Aisen, had taken with him.
In its statement of contrition, USC said that it and Professor Aisen “regret that the manner in which” Professor Aisen and his staff were brought to USC in 2015 caused disruption to San Diego.
“These actions did not align with the standards of ethics and integrity which USC expects of all its faculty, administrators, and staff,” USC said.
The case and San Diego’s victory highlight a nationwide practice of wealthier universities trying to bolster their institutional reputations by recruiting established stars from other campuses.
USC, California’s oldest private research university, has been especially aggressive in recent years. But in the case of Professor Aisen, a leader in Alzheimer’s research for more than two decades, USC has now admitted that it stepped over the line in capturing his multimillion-dollar operation.
In its lawsuit, San Diego had alleged that a series of secretive steps were undertaken by USC and Professor Aisen, including using “double agents” within San Diego, to convince Professor Aisen’s staff to make the switch, bringing along data they had accumulated from federally financed research, and to deceive San Diego in the process.
San Diego officials said they believe Professor Aisen wanted to leave to receive higher pay and greater resources to expand his lab. Having recruited Professor Aisen from Georgetown University in 2007, San Diego officials said they would have permitted an orderly departure – without the data, which belonged to the university – if he had asked.
Discussing the situation shortly after San Diego initiated legal action in 2015, Professor Aisen said that he believed he had behaved honourably. But USC, in the statement it drafted as part of the legal settlement, described making “sweeping changes” to ensure its commitment to “ethics, integrity and the pursuit of academic excellence”.
“These standards will apply to all aspects of university operations, including the recruitment and/or transition of faculty members to or from USC,” it said. “USC regrets that actions in this case fell short of these standards.”
A San Diego spokesman said he was limited in his ability to discuss the impact of Professor Aisen’s departure on the institution, given terms of the settlement that restrict further public comments on the matter.
The settlement, filed 1 July in the Superior Court of California for San Diego County, also requires both parties to pay their own legal costs, and to relinquish any future claims related to the matter.
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