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Lab is more than just a building

Steve Treimer

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 6, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Former director Mary Gilchrist still is very much respected at the University Hygienic Lab. But her Dec. 18 guest opinion ("Keep lab intact and at UI") does a very nice job of pointing out one of the major problems that evolved out of her 11 years as the lab's director.

The Hygienic Lab is Iowa's public health and environmental health laboratory. Gilchrist's emphasis on health issues demonstrates her area of interest and expertise. Unfortun-ately, there are many managers and lab workers from the environmental health side of lab who often found themselves working very hard, sometimes overtime, bringing in the bulk of the revenue for lab without receiving credit for their programs.

Gilchrist makes a point that "salaries need to be competitive so they (staff members) can be retained." Yet Gilchrist and her operations manager were the decision makers who less than three years ago chose not to provide cost-of-living raises to all the professional and scientific staff of the Hygienic Lab because she wished to show our fiscal responsibility and sacrifice. It's fair to assume that part of her motivation was to encourage the state Legislature to fund a new building. It still has not been clearly explained to the staff just where the money went from that earlier decision. And it might be added here that Gilchrist was paid nearly $180,000 in 2006.

It also seems that staff members chosen by Gilchrist were given non-competitive promotions and paid unfairly generous salaries. The Hygienic Lab is undergoing a lab-wide effort to prove our fiscal integrity and that has caused some difficult decisions to be made. These decisions are meant to make the general staff more informed and accountable for all that is done at the lab, whereas before, the input of the general staff simply was not entertained at all. The morale continues to improve and concurrently, so does productivity. The Hygienic Lab can be run like a business. Doing so just requires accountability and responsibility to the university and the citizens of Iowa.

Gilchrist worked very hard for the issues she held dear. But her tunnel vision focused primarily on a new building and not on the wishes of the university administrative mission.

I disagree with Gilchrist that the Hygienic Lab has a problem with how it is governed. Regrettably, Iowa is in a position in which we all need to be more fiscally responsible. Instead of constantly asking the state or the university for more money, which often translates to higher taxes and tuition for our citizens, it is important for the lab to focus on projects and samples that bring in self-supporting revenue. The lab staff are proud of what they accomplish with what they have to work with; they are not proud that the directorship seemed to have evolved more into a political position than a functional, perational position.

The lab staff also is optimistic about the future of the laboratory and the new director to be found, as we wish Gilchrist all the best in her future endeavors.
Steve Treimer works for the chemical terrorism section of the University Hygienic Laboratory.