Saturday, November 9, 2013

For the Record: Turner letter to President Kaler

While we are hosting Penn State for a football game today, it is fitting to consider Professor Leigh Turner's reminder that what happened at Penn State may be relevant to the Markingson situation at the University of Minnesota.

This letter is posted with permission of Professor Turner.

November 8, 2013

Eric Kaler, PhD
President, University of Minnesota
202 Morrill Hall, 100 Church Street S.E.
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN, 55455

Re: Open letter concerning new allegations of psychiatric research misconduct at the University of Minnesota 

Dear President Kaler:

I wish to inform you of possible new instances of psychiatric research misconduct at the University of Minnesota. 

On May 13 and June 5, I wrote to you about the death of Dan Markingson. On June 19, 2013, I sent an additional letter to the University’s general counsel. After my open letters to you were made publicly accessible, I was contacted by family members of several patients who were allegedly harmed in psychiatric studies here. These individuals reported that their loved ones had experiences comparable to that of Dan Markingson. Markingson’s life ended in a gruesome suicide that occurred while he was enrolled in a psychiatric clinical study. Markingson was “consented” into a clinical trial even though on several occasions immediately before his inclusion in the study he was assessed as lacking decision-
making capacity. He was recruited while under a stay of commitment order that compelled him to follow his doctor’s treatment recommendation. When Markingson’s mother made repeated efforts to withdraw her son from the trial his physicians failed to address her requests. Following Markingson’s death, researchers and university administrators did not provide adequate responses to complaints brought by his family members. Other families state that what happened to Dan Markingson is comparable to what their relatives experienced. Their accounts suggest that numerous cases of possible research misconduct have occurred with no subsequent investigation by the University. 

Professor Carl Elliott has been contacted by an even larger number of individuals reporting grave concerns related to the conduct of psychiatric research at the university. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to alert you and other administrators to the need for an investigation of psychiatric research misconduct. Yet you have consistently refused to take any action or even listen to these concerns.

Pennsylvania State University provides a powerful example of what can happen when senior university administrators fail to act on credible allegations of wrongdoing. In 2012, former Penn State assistant X football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse. He received a prison sentence that will run thirty to sixty years. An investigation by former FBI director Louis Freeh concluded that as early as 1998 several senior university officials were aware of allegations that Sandusky was sexually abusing children. Yet they failed to investigate these allegations or notify law enforcement authorities. Motivated by an apparent desire to protect the reputation of Pennsylvania State University, senior university officials tried to cover up acts that if disclosed would have been a public relations disaster. As a result, Sandusky was able to engage in far more acts of sexual abuse. 

Let me be clear: I am not accusing anyone employed at the University of Minnesota of engaging in criminal activity, I am not claiming that senior university administrators have conspired to engage in a cover-up, and I am not claiming that allegations of possible psychiatric research misconduct are proven. 

Rather, the point I wish to make is that when confronted with accusations of misconduct or criminal behavior university officials sometimes decide that their first duty is to protect the public image of their institution. At Penn State, this strategy was “successful” for years until it finally imploded. President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno were fired. Graham Spanier, former vice-president Gary Schultz, and former athletic director Tim Curley are charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy, endangering the welfare of children, and failure to report suspected child abuse. To date, Penn State has spent over $59 million settling lawsuits brought by victims. 

Of course, it is possible that the reports of research misconduct and abuse that I have been notified of will turn out to have no merit. But it is also entirely possible that their complaints are justified. 

The only way to know is to conduct an investigation. According to Richard Bianco, the university official responsible for overseeing research subject protection, the University of Minnesota never even investigated the circumstances surrounding the death of Dan Markingson, much less any other more recent allegations of research misconduct.

If senior officials at the University of Minnesota have failed to investigate credible claims that research participants have been harmed, the consequences could be devastating. Trust in the University of Minnesota will be shattered. Senior university officials will have to be fired. Federally funded research could be suspended and funding agencies could impose significant sanctions on the University. 

Reputational and financial damage to the university could be severe. 

It goes without saying that harm to victims is the most important issue when considering allegations of research misconduct. But it is worth considering the many ways in which the University of Minnesota could be damaged if senior university administrators ignored accusations that subsequently prove to be justified. As the scandal at Penn State reveals, failure to investigate allegations of wrongdoing can have dramatic consequences not only for victims but also for academic institutions and their leaders. 

I hope that you and other senior administrators at the University of Minnesota have considered these consequences as you refuse to investigate allegations of psychiatric research misconduct.

Yours sincerely,  
Leigh Turner, PhD

Associate Professor
University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics

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