The two prominent psychiatrists clashed frequently over small details and big money, over research priorities and ethics, and in the end Columbia University's child psychiatry department was not big enough to hold both of them, colleagues said.
In the suit, filed last week in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Dr. Peter Jensen, formerly the director of the Ruane Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health at Columbia, contends that after he was hired by the university in 1999, Dr. David Shaffer, director of the university’s child psychiatry division, continually undermined his work. By making derogatory comments and subjecting Dr. Jensen’s work to unfair scrutiny, the lawsuit says, Dr. Shaffer helped force Dr. Jensen out of his job.
Dr. Jensen — who said that, among other things, Dr. Shaffer had called him “the Brad Pitt of psychiatry” — is seeking about $15 million in damages from the university.
Dr. Jensen’s employment ended in June, after board members voted not to renew his contract. He charges in the suit that the move was improper. The filing of the lawsuit was reported on Wednesday in The New York Sun.
Columbia officials refused to comment on the case, as did Dr. Shaffer.
The two men differed sharply in their professional goals and personal styles, according to several people who had been colleagues of both but who would not comment on the record because of the lawsuit. Dr. Shaffer, a renowned expert on suicide among children and adolescents, is considered restrained and scholarly by nature, and he focuses primarily on the study of biochemical causes of psychological problems, mainly depression.
Dr. Jensen is, by his own admission, outspoken, a media favorite, and interested more in bringing psychiatric care to community settings than in basic research. He is best known for his work on attention deficit disorder.
“I don’t know what the details are, but I can say that these are two very strong-willed people,” said William E. Pelham, director of the Center for Children and Families at the University of Buffalo.
Beyond personalities and specialties, the case revolves in part around charges of ethics violations against Dr. Jensen.
In academic settings, researchers are subject to institutional review boards, which are responsible for ensuring that studies use proper consent procedures and do not endanger patients. Beginning in 2005, according to the suit, officials at the Research Foundation for Mental Health, an independent review board that monitors research grants in the state, identified several violations in Dr. Jensen’s research.
In an interview yesterday, Dr. Jensen would not specify what the violations were. He said that the university had approved other studies, with similar methods, without finding ethics problems. “Academic researchers know, and many have seen this kind of thing before — when a university wants to push someone out, it encourages the person to leave by making life there miserable,” Dr. Jensen said.
The projects that Dr. Jensen has worked on include efforts to encourage community doctors to follow guidelines for treating childhood mental disorders like depression. In studies like these, academic researchers track patients’ progress indirectly, typically without knowing their names. Ethics guidelines, which can vary from institution to institution, often require researchers to get consent before publishing any information on these patients, even if no one is named.
Dr. Jensen and Dr. Shaffer were continually at odds over research, according to colleagues. One of Dr. Shaffer’s projects is TeenScreen, a standardized questionnaire meant to assess potential suicide risk in adolescents. The voluntary screening, which has been used by more than 400 schools, is controversial among many parents and patient advocates, who say it can stigmatize youngsters who are struggling but are not mentally ill or at risk of suicide. Dr. Jensen said that he was less eager to promote TeenScreen than Dr. Shaffer, and that this created tension as well.
The two doctors also drew research financing from the same source, a fund set up by an investor in New York, William J. Ruane, which paid Dr. Jensen’s $220,000 yearly salary. The lawsuit says that the university owed Dr. Jensen three years’ salary.
Columbia stopped paying Dr. Jensen’s salary last summer. He is now director of the Reach Family Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes better treatment for children with developmental problems. Dr. Jensen, who before going to Columbia was the associate director of child and adolescent research at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., said he was still living in university housing.