The last couple of weeks, I’ve been poring over internal documents leaked by former employees at Trudeau Institute, including more memos and studies provided this week to NCPR and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
They provide new detail and clarity on the turmoil and lingering uncertainty at the biomedical research laboratory, which employs about 100 people in Saranac Lake.
It appears that for the last half decade, the lab’s leadership has been painfully divided, with some board members and staff secretly pursuing a plan to relocate some or all of the institute without buy-in from other board members.
When the relocation plan was vetoed by the full board in January 2011, the organization entered into a period of unprecedented disruption, losing key administrators and faculty.
Trudeau’s national reputation has clearly suffered. Eighteen months after the decision was made to stay, the institute still lacks a permanent director, and the community has no clear understanding of what the new plan is for moving forward.
Trudeau is a private institution. But it is also a vital part of the North Country’s economy, culture and history, and it relies for the lion’s share of its funding on taxpayer dollars.
Saranac Lake has staked a significant part of its future on emerging as a biomedical research cluster, with Trudeau at its heart. It appears that state and Federal officials are willing to help by investing significant funds in that vision.
So as the public discussion moves forward — and it appears that the timeline for solving some of Trudeau’s “structural” problems will need to be fairly swift — here are the questions Trudeau’s leadership needs to answer.
1. In simple terms, what is the plan? Has the board accepted that Trudeau can no longer serve the mission of conducting fundamental research into the human immune system, as it has done for half a century? If so, what’s next?
2. Whatever the plan is, how much money do you need? Trudeau executives hoped to garner roughly $88 million in subsidies, grants and philanthropic donations to relocate to Florida. What kind of public support is needed to sustain your vision in Saranac Lake?
3. Is the current board of trustees up to the task of guiding this institution, or does there need to be a substantial change? A survey conducted of Trudeau staff and faculty in April 2011 revealed a lot of fear, anxiety and distrust. Is it time for a shake-up at the top?
4. Is there a way to better engage and communicate with the community? Trudeau Institute relies on public support for its operations, but the organization often operates invisibly. The result has been deep distrust between some local leaders and Trudeau executives, and a remarkable level of detachment and apathy among the public. Do you think that needs to be fixed and if so how?
5. Exactly what is the situation now? How much money is left in Trudeau’s endowment? What are the most pressing, short-term needs, financial and otherwise, that will keep Trudeau afloat while bigger questions are answered? And why has it taken so long to hire a permanent new director?
Trudeau chairman Benjamin Brewster declined to be interviewed on tape for our reporting. And he didn’t return phone calls after the most recent Trudeau board meeting last Friday.
But in the absence of a permanent director at the lab, someone needs to step forward soon to speak bluntly about the institute’s next steps.