I was not expecting to come back to the Carlo Montemagno ‘affair’ after my March 5, 2018 posting but it seems this story about a nanotechnology laboratory (Ingenuity Lab) in Alberta and the lab’s leader, Dr. Carlo Montemagno and his hurried departure for a position at Southern Illinois University (SIU) as Chancellor in summer 2017 has legs. It also hints at some issue within Canadian higher education.
I noted at the time of my posting, that no one in Illinois seemed to be aware that Montemagno had obtained employment for his daughter and son-in-law at the University of Alberta just as he did at SIU when he later moved there. I also noted the pay cut Montemagno took when he moved to Illinois. Both of these facts have since come to light in Illinois and are mentioned in an April 10, 2018 article by Anna Spoerre for SIU’s student paper, the Daily Egyptian.
Before moving onto the latest, I was hoping they’d be able to salvage something from the wreckage in Alberta (from my March 5, 2018 posting),
As for the Ingenuity Lab, perhaps we’ll hear more about their Carbon transformation programme later this year (2018). Unfortunately, the current webpage does not have substantive updates. There are some videos but they seem more like wistful thinking than real life projects.
If they are cleaning up a mess and this looks like it might be the case, I hope they’re successful and can move forward with their projects. [emphases mine] I would like to hear more about the Ingenuity Lab in the future.
Tragedy and comedy
Sadly, it seems the Ingenuity Lab is in the process of being mothballed (from Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article),
Nine months after Carlo Montemagno left a position as director of Ingenuity Lab to assume the chancellorship at SIU’s Carbondale campus, some members of the Alberta community are still picking up the pieces of what they call a failed project brought to life and then abandoned by its director.
Ingenuity Lab was established in 2012 by the government of Alberta in partnership with the University of Alberta and Alberta Innovates to conduct nanotechnology research related to health, environment, energy and agriculture.
Though a reason was not explicitly given, funding for the lab will be cut this year [2018; emphasis mine] following a review of the lab’s operations.
In June 2017, a review of Ingenuity Lab was authorized. [emphasis mine] The process wrapped up in September  as part of a review of all Alberta Innovates funded programs, said Robert Semeniul, the new media specialist at Alberta Innovates.
Montemagno announced his relocation to SIU shortly after the review got under way. [emphasis mine] Meanwhile, an interim director — Murray Gray — was appointed by the university to redirect the initiative, Semeniul said.
“I was looking for an institutional leadership position that presented new challenges and opportunities — where there was work to be done and I could make a difference,” Montemagno said of leaving Alberta for Illinois. “I also missed interacting and working directly with students.”
“This was supposed to generate incredible amounts of economic activity,” said a former researcher at the former National Institute for Nanotechnology who had experience in the lab. “After awhile — three or four years — people were astonished at the lack of anything coming out of this lab, out of this giant pile of money that was being spent.”
Montemagno said through ground-breaking research the lab attracted external grant funding, including $9 million the last year he ran the lab. [As far as I can tell, as per an Ingenuity Lab news release mentioned in my March 5, 2018 posting, there was a $1.7M from Natural Resources Canada. It was the only grant announced when I was looking in March 2018. Where did the $9M come from?]
The final review has not been made public. Gray did not respond to requests for comment.
Keeping family close
In early April  in Edmonton the remnants of the Ingenuity Lab were gradually erased from the Nanotechnology Research Center on the University of Alberta’s campus.
A nametag pinned to a cubicle wall there displayed the name Kyle Minor, Montemagno’s nephew, and graduate student and project leader in his uncle’s lab.
Minor was one of three family members Montemagno employed at Ingenuity Lab. [emphasis mine] Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, and son-in-law, Jeffrey Germain, (both of whom are now employed at SIU) were also given jobs at the lab in Canada. The possibility of the Germains’ employment was mentioned in Montemagno’s hiring contract in Alberta.
“I can see why the people who hired [Montemagno] liked him, because he has a charismatic presence and he says the right things to the people he is speaking to,” a previous research associate at the lab said.
Montemagno was brought to the university of Alberta in 2012 with an annual salary of $500,000, almost $400,000 in U.S. currency at Tuesday’s exchange rate. He also received a $1,000,000 interest-free housing loan, according to his employment paperwork. [emphasis mine]
“Your intention to employ, through funding available under the NEBSL Accelerator initiative, your son-in-law and daughter in positions commensurate with their education and experience is acknowledged,” Montemagno’s contract read.
The contract, which purported to follow the University’s “Employment Policy” and “Managing Conflict of Interest in Employment Procedure” was signed by David Lynch, Alberta’s [sic] dean of engineering at the time of the hire. Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.
According to emails obtained through public information requests, there was a personal agreement between Lynch and Montemagno that the expenses for the immigration costs for him and his family would also be covered. [emphasis mine]
“On occasion, the recruitment of specialized faculty members includes a provision for the hiring of a family member into a position commensurate with their education and experience, and subject to our recruitment policy, [emphasis mine]” said Kiann McNeill, spokesman for the University of Alberta.
In addition to what seems to be an extraordinarily high salary ($500,000 + per year) and hiring his family (three of them per the Daily Egyptian’s Anna Spoerre as opposed to the two mentioned in my March 2018 post) to work in his lab, Montemagno got a $1M interest-free loan (this is not entirely correct, the CBC article, which follows, downgrades that number as you’ll see in the 2nd excerpt) and had his and his family’s immigration expenses covered. Is this standard hiring practice in the academic field? Given the failure to get a response from an individual (David Lynch, the University of Alberta’s then dean of engineering) who would have been involved, the answer would seem to be ‘no’.
Please do read the rest of Spoerre’s article and, if you have a little more time, the comments. It should be noted that there seem to be a couple of problems with details. The one noted here is the issue around the loan and, in the article, she states that the National Institute of Nanotechnology has been renamed to Nanotechnology Research Center. After changing ‘center’ to ‘centre’ in my search term, I found this site, which bears yet another name, NRC-UAlberta Nanotechnology Initiative. Should I ever find out what is going with Canada’s national nanotechnology institution, it will be the subject of another posting. [ETA June 20, 2018: I was finally able to untangle the mess (see my June 20, 2018 posting). Spoerre is unlikely to have been following the ‘National Institute of Nanotechnology story’ as I have and missed the ‘downsizing/rebranding exercise’ that had taken place. Also, that particular detail was largely irrelevant to her story.]
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) also covered the situation in an April 10, 2018 online article by Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell,
The University of Alberta recruited star American nanotechnology researcher [emphasis mine] Carlo Montemagno in 2012 by agreeing to his condition that it hire his daughter and son-in-law to work in his laboratory — in addition to his $500,000 a year salary.
Documents obtained through freedom of information by CBC News show the university offered jobs to Jeff and Melissa Germain, for which the couple were not required to formally apply.
In addition to leading the Ingenuity Lab at the U of A, he also served as director of the biomaterials program for the Canada Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology and was its research chair in intelligent nanosystems.
The university recruited Montemagno from the University of Cincinnati, where he was the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
An internal U of A document shows Montemagno sought the nepotism hires in Alberta because he wanted to continue the same arrangement he had at the University of Cincinnati.
It is the same deal he again negotiated when he left Alberta in 2017 to become chancellor of Southern Illinois University – Carbondale (SIU).
In January , the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, revealed SIU hired the Germains into jobs which were not advertised. Those hirings are now the subject of a state investigation.
Here’s where it gets interesting (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),
The internal University of Alberta documents reveal:
- The university appears to have allowed Montemagno to help write son-in-law Jeff Germain’s job description [emphasis mine] as laboratory manager. An early draft of the job description shows a master’s degree as a minimum educational requirement. It was later downgraded to a bachelor’s degree. Germain has a bachelor’s degree in biology but had significant experience as a lab manager.
- The university agreed to pay Jeff Germain a “market supplement” of more than $25,000 [emphasis mine]. Added to his base salary of nearly $95,000, that raised his total yearly salary to $120,000 a year, not including benefits. Germain was later promoted to director of operations for the Ingenuity Lab.
- The engineering faculty also hired Montemagno’s daughter, Melissa Germain, as a “laboratory technician” in chemical and materials engineering, the same area as her husband. For 24 hours a week, her starting salary was nearly $3,500 a month. [emphases mine]While officially employed as a lab tech, Melissa Germain’s LinkedIn profile states she worked as a copy editor. She was later promoted to a full-time position as communications director and paid nearly $6,000 a month. According to her LinkedIn account, she has a bachelor’s degree in geology. [emphases mine]
- The university also initially offered Montemagno an interest-free $1.4-million loan to buy a house. That provision was later changed to an interest-free $100,000 loan [emphases mine] and the reimbursement of any mortgage or line of credit interest fees used for a downpayment, provided the cost of the house was not more than $1.4 million. The loan had to be repaid as soon as Montemagno sold his house in Ohio or by June 30, 2017, whichever came first.
(sigh of relief) At least, it wasn’t a $1M loan. One other thought, was the loan repaid? Also, I checked (see here [accessed April 18, 2018]) for the standard salary scale for communications specialists in Canada and Melissa Germain’s roughly $72,000/year is on the high end of the scale, $73,000 being at the top. Presumably, you’d need a lot of experience and, hopefully, some training for the top salary.
CBC soldiered on and found an ethics expert (perhaps the University of Alberta needs someone?), from (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),
Hiring spouses who are themselves academics is not uncommon in higher education, said Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at York University in Toronto. But Leblanc said hiring a child and their spouse is “very, very strange. Very anomalous.”
“You want merit-based hiring and merit-based student applications, and not on the basis of favouritism or conflicts of interest,” he said.
“You want completely even-handed treatment of staff, of faculty, and of students. And something like this could reveal a culture of, in fact, inequitable treatment, which could be very damaging for a university.”
Leblanc also said the university should not be offering loans.
“Unless you are a financial institution — which the university is not, the university has public taxpayer money and the public trust — so offering an interest-free loan for anybody, any faculty member, is highly anomalous, for obvious reasons,” Leblanc said.
“I mean, that’s not what the university does and it is a conflict of interest because you don’t have the ability to let that person go. You are sort of beholden to that person and it is just not a proper use of scarce funding and taxpayer resources, to offer an interest-free loan. It is very strange.”
But the university’s new dean of engineering, Fraser Forbes, strongly defended the hirings, insisting there was no nepotism involved. [emphases mine]
Just in case some of us might not agree with Forbes, he notes this, (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),
Forbes said the Germains were not paid with university operating funds. Instead, Forbes said they were paid with funds provided to the university by the province and federal government for nanotechnology research. [emphases mine]
I feel ever so much better.
The Province of Alberta did have something to say about this, eventually (from CBC’s April 10, 2018 online article),
The University of Alberta said Wednesday [April 11, 2018] it will review its conflict of interest policy in light of news that a former employee six years ago had requested family members be hired in a process that was not rigorously documented.
Last month [March 2018], Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt [emphasis mine] sharply criticized University of Alberta president David Turpin’s $824,000 total compensation in the context of a four-per-cent budget cut, and increases in tuition for international students and student-residence rates.
Schmidt refused an interview request from CBC News for this story. His press secretary said Schmidt had no time in his schedule over several days to accommodate a 10-minute interview.
But at a media availability Tuesday [April 10, 2018] on new rules to limit salaries of university and college presidents, Schmidt was asked about Montemagno’s deal to hire his daughter and son-in-law.
“No, nepotism has no place in any public agency,” Schmidt said.
It’s good to know Schmidt’s stance on this and perhaps there will be some action taken over what seems to be a blatant failure to curb nepotism at the now largely defunct (no website but they still have a Facebook and Twitter presence) Ingenuity Lab.
Since the April 10, 2018 online article, the University of Alberta has pleaded guilty in the court of public opinion and admitted to the conflicts of interest in the Montemagno affair, from an April 11, 2018 article by Juris Garvey for the Edmonton Journal,
While the university was in no way “contractually obligated” to hire family members, it may have done so against its own conflict of interest policy. [emphasis mine]
Deputy provost Wendy Rogers said Wednesday there is nothing unusual about post-secondary institutes hiring people from the same family. But their policies say family members are not allowed to be involved in the hiring of other family, develop job descriptions, supervise them or make recommendations for their pay.
Emails show university staff recommended Montemagno write the position description for the job intended for Jeffrey Germain, and an organizational chart shows Jeffrey Germain reported directly to Montemagno for the first two years.
Of greatest concern, however, is that the university acknowledged there was “no record of an advertisement for the position … nor records of the hiring process” for Jeffrey Germain.
“We cannot confirm whether or not the appropriate procedure governing conflict of interest was initially followed,” the university said in a statement posted to its website Tuesday [April 10,2018].
“Had we received a complaint about this at any time while Dr. Montemagno was employed here, it would have been fully investigated.” [emphasis mine]
Yes, I can imagine the number of people stepping forward to make a complaint. They were certainly eager to be interviewed for Spoerre’s April 10, 2018 article,
The former research associate was one of 11 people interviewed in Edmonton for this story who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of harming their careers.