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Robin McWilliam's seven years as research director at the Siskin Center for Child and Family Research ended this week, a separation McWilliam attributed to budget tightening and bad chemistry with institute president John Farrimond.

McWilliam is the only one of the Siskin Children's Institute's 112 full-time employees to lose his job. He told the Times Free Press he was the second highest paid employee after the president and that the decision to let him go was "pretty stupid" because it ends research programs at the institute.

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Robin McWilliam
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John Farrimond

"The research institute closes down with my departure," he said.

On its tax return, the institute lists McWilliam's salary as $172,863 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014. Farrimond was paid $192,173.

The institute's four divisions are education, outreach, health care and research. The institute's financial records show a staff of three doctoral researchers who collaborate with other universities — partnerships McWilliam had forged. McWilliam and Farrimond both say closing down the institute's research division affects only his job and his administrative assistant's. But McWilliam said Siskin was trying to find his assistant a comparable job.

McWilliam was already a celebrated academic when he came to Siskin. From 2002 to 2008 he was division chief at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital for the developmental and behavioral pediatrics division. He served as senior scientist at the University of North Carolina from 1988 to 2002. He received his Ph.D. in education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While working at Siskin, he taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"As a part of the budgeting process for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the board directors in consultation with management made the decision to reorganize how Siskin Children's Institute would be involved with research endeavors going forward," Farrimond said in an email to the Times Free Press. "This resulted in the closure of The Center for Child and Family Research, an action that affected two employees."

Farrimond addressed a question about Siskin's finances by saying that Siskin had met "aggressive budget goals that will ensure that the Institute continues to not only thrive, but to reach the ever growing number of children and families who need our help The Institute will continue to be involved in research endeavors though the continued partnership with UTC. We look forward to following Dr. McWilliam's continued impact on his field of study."

Farrimond arrived at Siskin in January 2013 with his own impressive credentials, including an MBA from the prestigious University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He served as a vice president at The Help Group, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit serving children and young adults with autism spectrum and an array of learning disabilities. But McWilliam said he did not feel Farrimond always understood the importance of his research.

McWilliam is an expert in early intervention for special needs children from birth to age 5. His research found commonalities in effective teaching and training for children facing widely disparate challenges: blindness, deafness, autism, cerebral palsy and so on. McWilliam's approach was to focus on the child's family and how they interacted rather than having the child learn drills or stratagems in a classroom. He is proud that studies show the disabled child as well as the family are happier after this approach. McWilliam often supervised as many as 11 doctoral candidates from all over the world. Their salaries were paid by their respective universities while they conducted research.

Financial documents for the fiscal year ending June 2014 said the research center benefited 2,927 individuals during the previous year.

Helen Siskin Pregulman expressed her admiration for McWilliam's dedication to children and families as well as his intellect and research. Pregulman's father and uncle were visionaries who championed education and empowerment of people with disabilities in 1950. They created the institute.

"He has had remarkable results with children who have never communicated with anyone in their lives before," she told the Times Free Press. "His research is certainly innovative and focused on an entire family. He follows through on a personal level to a degree I've never before seen in a researcher. Academics all over the world want to work with him. We were fortunate to have him."

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Dr. Robin McWilliam, back center, enjoys a light moment with pre-K students at the Siskin Children's Institute. Lindsey Keith, right, lead teacher in the pre-K class discussed improvements in classroom management with Dr. McWilliam. The students at the table include Koree Ray, left, and Luz Argueta.

Tax records for fiscal year 2013-2014 show the research center posted $970,674 in expenses and revenue of $47,120. By contrast, Siskin's education program — which operates a preschool center with teachers and therapists for children with and without disabilities — had expenses of $3,619,199 and revenue of $3,560,955. Siskin calculated that the schools helped 272 individuals during the year.

"Research is not a money maker," McWilliam said. "It's about what you can do for others."

The Times Free Press obtained a July 21, 2015, email from Farrimond that indicated Siskin's financial outlook was brightening.

It said most of Siskin's lower-paid employees would receive a 3 percent raise and those with higher salaries will receive a 1.5 percent raise effective Friday. Farrimond then alludes to tough financial decisions he made last year such as closing Siskin's East Brainerd outpost.

This year, Farrimond wrote, "we were still drawing about $450,000 more than allowed to cover our budget. After significant and difficult discussion, the decision was made to close the Center for Child and Family Research. Losing someone of the caliber of Dr. McWilliam is not easy. His seven years at the Institute were fruitful and helped establish our name far beyond Chattanooga."

Contact staff writer Lynda Edwards at (423) 757-6391 or ledwards@timesfreepress.com.

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