Researchers and administrators at the University of Maryland said they were unsettled by the apparent eagerness of the state's top biotechnology officer to seek jobs elsewhere.
In the most recent episode, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute President Rita R. Colwell went through four days of interviews as one of three finalists for the presidency of Oregon State University in Corvallis. She ultimately withdrew a few hours before the post was filled.
Little known outside of scientific circles, she is considered a leading light nationally in biotechnology for promoting public and private partnerships. She boasts sterling credentials as an academic administrator: She is president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she is one of the nation's most respected women researchers for her work in marine biology.
State officials are loath to let her go. As Baltimore's industrial base has eroded, civic leaders look to the biotechnology industry as part of the region's economic salvation. And many prominent Marylanders have pinned their hopes on Dr. Colwell and UMBI -- an institution she has led since conceiving of it a decade ago -- to fulfill Baltimore's promise in biotechnological commercial activity and research.
Dr. Colwell's biggest coups include her involvement in securing government funding for the construction of the $160 million Columbus Center on Baltimore's Inner Harbor, intended to be an incubator for public-private research partnerships, and in luring AIDS researcher Robert Gallo to Baltimore from the National Institutes of Health.
UMBI works with researchers from the University of Maryland, the government and private industry to promote spinoff applications of biotechnological research. UMBI is the Columbus Center's chief tenant.
Dr. Gallo clearly was annoyed when he learned of Dr. Colwell's Oregon candidacy. "This is the first time I've even heard a rumor of that," he said Thursday when reached in Tokyo. "I would like to see Rita Colwell stay. We have a relationship. She's been involved in, and a key in the development of, [Maryland's] biotechnology centers. What can I say?" he said.
"I think she would have been a huge loss," said Dr. Donald E. Wilson, dean of the University of Maryland Medical School. "If your paper had said she had taken the job, I would have yelled at her."
On Friday, Dr. Colwell said one of the reasons she withdrew was the steep drop in pay -- about $70,000 less than her annual salary of $188,000. But she also said she had unfinished business here.
"I'm very anxious for the Columbus Center to be a world-class facility, and I want to make sure it goes in that direction," she said. "Sometimes I get a little discouraged. I'd like to see them move a little quicker. When you start weighing things out, suddenly what seems so attractive doesn't seem so attractive. This is one of many inquiries and potentials."
But the Columbus Center is largely on schedule, according to widely publicized deadlines, and Dr. Colwell's scientists moved into their quarters on time last March. Even successful biotechnology initiatives take years, if not decades, to bear fruit, state officials say.
"What I'm trying to transmit is that I have a very deep and loyal affection for the state of Maryland," Dr. Colwell said. "I was exploring the opportunity but I am not seeking opportunities."
Despite saying last week that she would view Oregon State's presidency as a fitting cap to her career, Dr. Colwell said Friday that she was unlikely to leave Maryland for a job elsewhere. But colleagues note she has been a willing candidate at several campuses.
When she was offered the presidency of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1993, Maryland state officials granted her a substantial raise that made her the second-highest-paid administrator in the university system, after the chancellor.
UM Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg said Dr. Colwell was offered no incentives to stay this time. "At that stage of the game, you've thought about it long and hard and realized it's something you're willing to do and something you want to do," Dr. Langenberg said. "She is the founding mother of UMBI . . . [But] no one is irreplaceable or indispensable."
After her final interview, Dr. Colwell withdrew her candidacy for Oregon State's presidency -- just hours before the state board of higher education voted 8-2 to select Paul Risser, president of Miami University of Ohio.