Duke researcher appointed as new provost

Mar. 03, 2014 @ 08:51 PM

One of Duke University’s most prominent medical researchers will become its new provost this summer, taking over from political scientist Peter Lange.

The university’s Board of Trustees approved the appointment of Duke School of Medicine cell biologist Sally Kornbluth over the weekend. She will replace Lange on July 1.

The assignment will put Kornbluth in charge of the academic-affairs side of Duke, including admissions and financial aid.

A Duke statement announcing the decision quoted President Richard Brodhead as saying he thinks Kornbluth “will supply outstanding academic leadership” because she combines “a deep love of Duke with keen intelligence about the challenges facing higher education.”

The same statement quoted Kornbluth as saying it’ll be “a tremendous honor and a significant challenge” to lead Duke, which benefits from a “collaborative, interdisciplinary culture [that] creates opportunities for faculty and students to make a difference in the world.”

She was not available for an interview on Monday, saying via email that she was tied up all day chairing a National Institutes of Health grant-review committee.

Lange is stepping down as provost after holding the job since 1999, a 15-year tenure that made him Duke’s longest-serving academic-affairs chief.

He plans on taking a year’s sabbatical before returning to the political-science faculty, and will remain as board chairman of Duke Kunshan University, a branch of the school that’s set to open in China near Shanghai, Duke Vice President Michael Schoenfeld said.

Kornbluth’s hiring means the provost’s job will stay in the hands of a longtime Duke faculty member.

Lange came to Duke in 1981 from Harvard University; Kornbluth arrived in 1994 following post-doctoral work at the University of California at San Diego.

As it happens, Kornbluth, like Lange, has a degree in political science. She earned it as an undergraduate at Williams College before she switched to genetics and molecular oncology.

She now runs a lab that looks for clues to why cancer sometimes emerges from the process of cellular division. Its staff includes seven graduate students, two post-docs, a lab technician and four other Ph.D-level researchers.

Schoenfeld said that while the provost’s position “is generally a full-time job,” Kornbluth “is planning to continue her research.” He referred questions about that to Kornbluth.

The incoming provost is now vice dean for basic science in the School of Medicine. She was set in 2011 to become one of Lange’s top lieutenants, the vice provost for academic affairs, but after accepting opted instead to stay in the medical school.

She at the time said her “true interest in academic administration is inextricably linked to my passion and love for biomedical research.”

Her tenure as a medical-school administrator hasn’t been without controversy, as it made her one of the point persons at Duke in responding to questions about the work of a since-disgraced researcher, Anil Potti.

That controversy developed after analysts at the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center found they couldn’t replicate findings from a Potti-led project that pointed to a way to tailor cancer treatments to a tumor’s genetic makeup.

Once they started raising question, Duke suspended clinical trials of the new treatments on Duke patients while a review panel examined Potti’s work. The trials resumed after the panel found it could replicate Potti’s statistical work.

Trouble was, the Texas analysts by then had developed doubts not just about the statistics, but the underlying data.

They found it didn’t match what was in the public database Potti and his colleagues had drawn it from, and reported that to Kornbulth and another senior Duke administrator, neither of whom forwarded the second complaint to the review panel.

Kornbluth later told the British science journal Nature the second report didn’t go to the review panel to ensure Potti “complete fairness.”

Duke pulled the plug on the trials for good after another trade publication alleged that Potti had lied about his resume in grant applications. The head of Duke’s genomics institute later acknowledged there’d been “a lack of verification” of Potti’s work before launching the trials.