NEW YORK, Feb. 11 - On Sunday the Rockefeller University said that its president, Arnold Levine, had resigned for health reasons. One day later The New York Times reports that Levine left under a cloud of accusations regarding a sexual encounter with a young female student.
But Rockefeller sources tell GenomeWeb on Monday that the president's resignation may have had as much to do with his business affiliations as with his personal affairs.
Levine is also on the board of embattled New York biotech firm ImClone, and Rockefeller insiders suggest that the university was concerned about being publicly linked with that company's humiliating and high-profile troubles.
University representatives denied that Levine's ImClone connection had anything to do with his departure. "To my knowledge, his membership on the ImClone board is not a problem," said Joseph Bonner, the university's director of communications.
Levine was unavailable for comment.
Since the end of last year, ImClone has been unraveling in a firestorm of revelations, allegations, and investigations. On Dec. 28, the company announced that the US Food and Drug Administration had refused to review its application for Erbitux, a promising new cancer drug. That announcement, followed by evidence that the company knew all along that the FDA would not approve the trial coupled with allegations of insider trading by the two brothers who run the firm, sent the company's reputation--and its stock--into freefall.
ImClone is currently being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the US Justice Department, and by a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives. ImClone partner Bristol Myers-Squibb has also demanded the temporary removal of the company's two top officers and has demanded to be given complete control to shepherd Erbitux, a drug for colorectal cancer, through the clinical trial process.
It does not appear that Levine used his insider status for great personal gain: According to SEC filings, Levine sold 1,329 shares of the stock on Oct. 29 as part of a tender offer by Bristol Myers-Squibb. At that point, the stock was near its peak in price and Levine got $93,030 from the sale. But the same documents also show that he apparently still holds more than 29,000 shares of the company, which were trading at $17.16 on the Nasdaq on Monday afternoon.
Nonetheless, Levine's ImClone connections could have been embarrassing for this prestigious biomedical research institute on Manhattan's tony upper East Side.
The Rockefeller University is one of the crown jewels of the East Coast's elite scientific institutes, boasting ties to 21 Nobel Laureates, 16 Lasker awardees, and five MacArthur fellows. Trustees include New York social luminaries like Brooke Astor, Nancy Maginnes Kissinger, Annette de la Renta, and David Rockefeller.
The university has endured high-profile scandals before: In 1991, president and Nobel Laureate David Baltimore resigned after allegations surfaced that one of his collaborators had fabricated data.
Levine, a renowned cancer biologist who co-discovered the p53 tumor suppressor gene, was appointed in 1998 after a lengthy recruitment search. He was heralded as a dynamic force that would bring new energy to the university. During his tenure as president, he was able to recruit 14 new faculty members and launch a $350 million capital campaign.
On Sunday, Rockefeller University issued a statement written by Levine that reads, in part: "In recent weeks, I have become aware of matters affecting my own personal health that I need to address immediately. In light of my health issues, I regret I will not be able to continue to lead this extraordinary institution and these talented people."
Richard B. Fisher, the school's chairman, said in the statement that the board had accepted Levine's decision "with understanding and compassion," and that the trustees would appoint an acting president soon and start a search for a new president immediately.
Levine's abrupt departure, which suprised many, comes on the heels of questioning by Rockefeller's trustees into the alleged encounter in January between him and an adult female student that occurred in a campus lounge when both were drunk, according to people close to the former president, who spoke to the Times on the condition of anonymity.
These people said that although the student said the encounter had been consensual, Levine had said it was inappropriate. These people went on to say that after discussing the incident with Fisher, Levine volunteered to step down. Levine, who is 62, remains as a faculty member and director of a research laboratory, but will take time off.