Thursday, May 5, 2011

Who is Really Bullying?

Academic Leaders and 

the Stifling of Critics of Conflict of Interest

Universities, which are supposed to discover and disseminate knowledge, ought to be the foremost defenders of free speech and a free press.  However, in the past decades, university executives have become notorious for trying to control speech that offends their political sensibilities (for numerous examples, see the FIRE - Foundation for Individual Rights in Education web-site.) 

It seems that academic leaders get even more upset when their or their faculties' conflicts of interest are criticized, as demonstrated by updates about two important cases we have discussed.

University of Minnesota

Earlier this year we posted about the troubling case of the death of an ostensibly voluntary participant in a clinical trial at the University of Minnesota years ago.  A particular concern was whether the money they received from the trial's sponsor influenced faculty and university leaders to overlook problems that might have put patients at risk in a trial whose main goal was marketing, not science.

The case got recent attention in an article by Dr Carl Elliott, a university professor of bioethics, and a letter he signed with other faculty requesting a new university inquiry into the case.  Not only did the university administration rebuff this request, but it now seems to be looking for ways to deter any future criticism of the institution's human research.  As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education,
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.'

Professor Carl Elliott, who wrote the Mother Jones article that brought the recent unpleasantness of the Markingson case back into the public view, was concerned:
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.

It defies common sense that Dr Elliott, representing only his own intellect and knowledge of ethics, was the "bully" in this case, while Mr Rotenberg, representing the university hierarchy, and the faculty members who ran the trial in which Mr Markingson died were the victims. As University of Minnesota faculty member Karen-Sue Taussig, a medical anthropologist, said per the Bioethics Forum:
I was worried the committee might be being used to intimidate a member of the faculty who was critical of the University. It seemed to me that there was a logical inconsistency in the University counsel's position: he did not provide any evidence that any individual faculty member felt chilled by Carl's work, yet his bringing up the issue clearly posed the threat of chilling Carl's speech. . . . In short, I was concerned about the possibility of an Orwellian attempt to invoke academic freedom in order to chill academic freedom.

By the way, there is also nothing to suggest that Dr Elliott's work was "factually incorrect."  Per the Bioethics Forum:
Philosopher and historian of science Ken Waters, who also attended the second meeting, was just as concerned. 'The University's general council planted a false question, the implicature of which [the committee] seemed to be uncritically accepting (that Carl was advancing factually incorrect claims),' he wrote to me in an e-mail. 'And in planting the question, the counsel was trying to turn the tables and squelch my colleagues' academic freedom by somehow suggesting that they were impinging upon the academic freedom of others.'

In the 1980s and 1990s, university administrators tended to attack speech they felt was hurtful to minorities and women, using speech codes (again as has been amply demonstrated by FIRE). Now they seem most sensitive to speech critical of their own exercise of power, and of the cozy financial relationships that generate conflicts of interest and threaten the academic mission.  Furthermore, now that it has become fashionable to decry "bullying," "anti-bullying" initiatives may become the chief way to quell criticism that make academic leaders uncomfortable.


At one time, university administrators and favored faculty justified attacks on free enquiry, a crucial part of the academic, by claiming a higher political or social purpose.  Now they seem to be willing to trash the core values of academia to stifle critics of their own actions, especially those involving lucrative conflicts of interest.   Such actions may be a major cause of the anechoic effect.
Increasingly, academic institutuions seem to be run more for the personal benefit of their leaders and their cronies than to discover and disseminate knowledge.  True health care reform would return academic medicine to its fundamental purpose, and return its leadership to those who would uphold the mission rather than fill their pockets.  

Hat tip to Ed Silverman in the PharmaLot blog re the University of Minnesota case.  See also comments by Prof William Gleason in the Periodic Table blog, e.g., here and here, and by Gary Schwitzer in the HealthNewsReview blog.

Amen, Dr. Poses...

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