Friday, April 5, 2013

The Silence of the Lambs

"..and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.”

Friday, April 5, 2013

The silence of the faculty

Here’s a prediction. When the dust finally settles on the research scandals here at the U, one looming question will be: why didn’t the faculty speak out?

It’s not as if this is a tough case. The ethical issues here are as obvious as they were for Tuskegee. And it’s not as if the evidence has been hidden away. Court documents, emails, memos, depositions: they’ve all been publicly available – and organized for easy viewing – for a very long time.

Those who depend on the authority of experts have had plenty of guidance. Three former editors of theNew England Journal of Medicine have signed a petition calling for an investigation, alongside prominent activists, whistleblowers, bioethicists and government officials. Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet has signed on. So has Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, and Susan Reverby, the Wellesley historian who uncovered the Guatemala syphilis studies.

Many signatories of the petition say they are stunned by the apparent wrongdoing in this case.

What accounts for the silence on campus? Ignorance?Apathy? Or maybe fear?

All good questions and hard for me to answer. But I've seen the same kind of behavior many times at the U and documented it on the Periodic Table.

I graduated from the U and have always valued it as a place where someone without an Ivy League education could get what they needed to compete with anyone.

There are many excellent faculty members at the U, some of whom have spoken out on this matter.  But it is always easier to complain about things going on in places like Abu Ghraib than to clean up the mess in your own back yard. I have a different view on this. If you are not willing to at least try to clean up your own mess, why should someone believe you in cases where harsh commentary will cost you nothing?

Some years ago, I had a friend, the U of M chemistry professor Margaret Etter, who is now deceased. We knew each other in graduate school, at 3M, and at the U of M again as faculty members. She was the kind of person who would do the right thing no matter the risk to her personally. Most of us are fortunate to have known a handful of such people in our lives.

I remember her fondly and wish there were more U of M faculty like her. 

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