By Dr. David Lewis | TLB Science Advisor
The Eugene P. Odum Lecture held by The University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology this week brings back memories. Unfortunately, it reminds me of questions surrounding UGA’s handling of Professor Odum’s estate, in which he reportedly had wanted his home and property preserved for ecology students and the general public.
Scientists working at universities often leave their property to their institutions to be used for academic purposes. In my case, I agreed to serve as Co-Executor and Co-Trustee with UGA on an estate belonging to a professor wanting to leave $4 million in assets to UGA, including rare Native American artifacts and enough money to create an endowed chair.
After reading a copy of a will prepared by UGA’s lawyers, it appeared to me that it gave UGA the right to take possession of his estate should he become incapacitated, leaving him no resources to cover any ongoing medical care. Attorneys at law firms dealing with estates in Atlanta and Athens reviewed it for me, and agreed. They described UGA’s conflict of interest as egregious, and wrote a letter informing the professor that they will did not serve his interests.
I gave it to the professor, and suggested that he remove a line bequeathing me an amount of money. Instead, I requested that he add it to the amount he planned to leave a woman renting part of his home, who cared for him during his declining health. He changed his will accordingly, and also decided to leave his house to her. UGA’s lawyers claimed that the inherent conflicts of interests UGA has in handling estates is required by law, and advised the professor to drop me as Co-Executor and Co-Trustee.
UGA went on to name a meeting room after the professor, regularly invite him to sit with President Adams at football games, and give him various other privileges. Eventually, however, he decided to meet with lawyers in Atlanta to make sure UGA carried out the stipulations of his will, especially the part bequeathing his house to his loyal caretaker. Tragically, he passed away before a meeting could be arranged.
Upon learning UGA was selling the professor’s property, I stopped by the estate sale and dropped off a microscope the professor had loaned to me. When I noticed UGA’s broker selling Indian artifacts, which the professor’s will specified should go to UGA’s Museum of Natural History, I asked him about selling the artifacts and the house. He explained there were two wills, and that the only one UGA signed left everything for UGA to sell.
UGA’s practice of compelling benefactors to yield sole possession of their assets, and even preparing multiple wills and only signing the one that does, undermines its integrity, and science too whenever it involves scientists.
David Lewis, Ph.D.
Former U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist
David Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.
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