Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In Request, Some U. of Minnesota Faculty Members 

See an Effort to Silence Critics of Research Ethics

By Tushar Rae (emphasis mine)

At the prompting of the University of Minnesota's general counsel, a committee of the University Senate has taken up the question of how faculty should collectively respond to "factually incorrect attacks" on particular faculty research.
Some faculty members say that direct appeal from the general counsel, Mark B. Rotenberg, is an attempt to quiet some faculty members' criticism of drug trials conducted at the university, including one seven years ago in which a participant, Dan Markingson, committed suicide. Before they took up the general counsel's question at a meeting this month, members of the university's Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee were provided with copies of material related to that case, including a letter sent by eight bioethicists to the Board of Regents last fall, asking it to appoint a panel of outside experts to examine the ethical issues raised by the death.
Committee members discussed with two administrators who attended that meeting, on April 8, whether faculty members have a responsibility to respond to attacks on fellow faculty members, according to minutes from the meeting; failure to do so, one professor said, could be seen as parallel to "bullying."
Carl Elliott, a professor in the university's Center for Bioethics, has continued to draw attention to the Markingson case, including by writing the letter to the regents with seven other professors from the bioethics center requesting the inquiry. Legal and university authorities found no wrongdoing by those involved in the drug trials, the university said, and the eight professors' request of the board was declined.
Last fall, Mr. Elliott wrote a piece for Mother Jones, an investigative-journalism magazine, about the perils of the university policies surrounding drug trials, focusing specifically on the Markingson case.
In an interview, Mr. Elliott said the general counsel's actions are troubling. Instead of fostering an open discussion about research practices, Mr. Rotenberg, and by extension the university administration, is attempting to use the faculty senate as a "stalking horse" for intimidation and punitive action, Mr. Elliott said.
Mr. Rotenberg said Mr. Elliott is misunderstanding the situation. He and the university are not seeking to use the faculty senate to quiet criticism or to intimidate or punish anyone, he said.
He said he asked the faculty senate to discuss the issue of how to handle allegations professors make against one another because he thinks it is imperative that the faculty, and not just the administration, have a role to play in dealing with those matters. "The faculty, as a collective body, should take an interest in attacks on their members that serve to deter or chill controversial research, " Mr. Rotenberg said in an interview.
Mr. Rotenberg previously issued a statement about Mr. Elliott's Mother Jones piece, presenting the university's viewpoint and challenging the accuracy of some statements in the article.
Mr. Rotenberg said he has not suggested that the faculty senate reprimand Mr. Elliott, nor is he aware of any action being considered by the administration against Mr. Elliot.

Rights and Limits of Academic Freedom

The committee that is tackling Mr. Rotenberg's question is chaired by Barbara A. Elliott, a professor of family medicine and community health at the university's Duluth campus, and Karen L. Miksch, associate professor of law and higher education at the Twin Cities campus.
Ms. Elliott, who is unrelated to Carl Elliott, and Ms. Miksch say that their panel is not in any way being used as a tool for intimidation. They say they have been considering the rights and limits of academic freedom and the free-speech rights of public employees for quite some time. The committee is also working on a white paper to detail rights and limits of academic freedom to serve as an introduction to those who are not familiar with academic freedom and as a refresher for those who are.
"I support every single academic's right to academic freedom and their opinions," Ms. Elliott said in an interview. The committee's task, she says, is not to talk about specific cases but rather broad policy questions.
Ms. Miksch echoed Ms. Elliott."If anyone else feels like they are being intimidated and threatened, they should go to the judicial committee," she added. "We just do policy." The white paper will attempt to educate faculty members about the options of recourse they have if they feel as if their academic freedom is being threatened, she says.
The committee held two meetings this month, the most recent one last week, that considered the questions Mr. Rotenberg asked about the appropriate faculty response to criticism of others' research.
For some faculty members, the discussion that took place in the first of those meetings, the one on April 8, was troubling.
After reading the minutes of that meeting, Naomi Scheman, a professor of philosophy on the Twin Cities campus and the president of Minnesota's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, wrote a letter to Ms. Elliott expressing concern that some of the discussion at the committee's last meeting "seemed to be presuming that the claims made against the researchers were false."
"The committee cannot work on that highly prejudicial presumption," she wrote. "It is precisely what is at issue in the case."
Ms. Scheman, who attended the committee's meeting last week, said it was "inappropriate of Mr. Rotenberg to ask and inappropriate of the committee to discuss" those issues.
For anyone in that first meeting this month to suggest that Mr. Elliott or the other critics were stifling researchers' ability to work, Ms. Scheman says, is "ridiculous." Since the administration seems to be firmly behind the researchers, she adds, any implication that the letter writers are a threat means "the story of David and Goliath is being mixed up."
For his part, Mr. Elliott says he feels better after the meeting last week. Though he is concerned about his position at the university, he said the support he has received from some of his peers has been comforting. He also reiterated his call for change.
"The letter was not attack on individuals, but on the way trials are being conducted here," he said. "That needs to be fixed."


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