BINGHAMTON, N.Y—A few years ago, the State University of New York at Binghamton wanted to put its biology department on the fast track for research. So it went out and hired John Baust, a 44-year-old cryobiologist from the University of Houston, to take it there.

Baust arrived at the upstate New York school in January 1987 and quickly announced his goals: a doubling of the number of graduate students; a fourfold increase in outside funding, from less than $1 million to $4 million annually; and recognition by his peers that the department had climbed into the nation’s elite of academic research programs. He had a personal mission as well: to direct a new Center for Cryobiological Research, a lab created to advance his own work on how organisms adapt to subfreezing temperatures.

Two years later, that ambitious effort has come crashing down around him. In October 1988 Baust resigned as...

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