Monday, June 1, 2015

For the Record: U of M faculty member of Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee Steps Over Line?

As I commented to my Academic Senate colleagues:
Carl Elliott apparently feels he has some special insight or unique knowledge of clinical research practice because he repeatedly faults President Kaler for not meeting with him to gain this critical information.His curriculum vitae provides little to warrant this claim.Instead, it shows a significant enhancement of his professional accomplishments attributed to his very public rebukes of this University’s administration by him over the years.His online presence links this activity with advertisements for his book ‘White Coats, Dark Hats’.Similarly, Leigh Turner’s CV is enhanced by almost two pages with 22 items entitled ‘Public service & scholarship requesting an investigation of psychiatric clinical research at the University of Minnesota.’Matthew Lamkin’s CV similarly benefits from such ‘accomplishments’.When, in the course of academic pursuits, does scholarship cross over into vested interests/conflict of interest?
Maybe their expertise into bioethics makes them so insightful into ethical dilemmas that the fact that their actions embellish significantly their own disciplinary credentials is not important and we should remain attuned to their professional demands for righting the university?However, as Sally Satel notes in her review of ‘White Coat, Black Hat’ “…Carl Elliott’s sensational and depressing message, which is that most doctors are dupes and the rest are corrupt” makes one wonder about full objectivity.Ms. Satel notes her concern that ‘The Wild West days of free-ranging drug salesmen, lavish gifts, and pharma-scripted talks are largely over. But Elliott’s book unfortunately keeps alive the impression that corruption, both subtle and overt, is rife.’“Without actually intending it,” Elliott writes, “we have constructed a medical system in which deception is often not just tolerated but rewarded.”Is this, as Ms. Satel seems to imply, sensationalism for the sake of book sales or a committed scholar who fails to recognize change?
Carl Elliott has made us aware of possible motives as he notes in his satirical essay ‘How to be an academic failure: an introduction for beginners’ when he explains prophetically: “If you are feeling a little too comfortable with success, it doesn’t usually take much work to dig up some sort of ethical problem to expose. Conflict of interest, research scandals, malpractice lawsuits in waiting -- any of these will do. Go to a dean or a hospital administrator, kick up a fuss with your Institutional Review Board…” and then he goes on to note “In bioethics, there is always somebody for you to alienate.”As quoted in the Satel review ‘Elliott…dispels any promise of even-handedness: “I do not claim to offer a balanced picture of contemporary American medicine. My interest is in how medicine has gone wrong, not in what there is to admire.”’
It is this lack of any premise of even-handedness along with a clear track of conflict of interest, from resumé padding to book sales, which has me questioning the motivation of these colleagues.As the Rush Limbaughs‎ and Fox News of the world have found, unbalanced pictures of complex situations can make for some handsome rewards.Ethical decisions almost always involve judgments of facts and situations that are subject to various interpretations and influences – judgements that typically are in the gray area without a clear black/white delineation. Lack of objectivity or even the perception of the lost even-handiness can exclude an individual from having their opinions taken seriously.Have these three clearly crossed that line?
As members of the University of Minnesota faculty or its alumnus, these professors have an innate conflict-of-interest when attacks on the university enhance their resumé and thus, as bioethicists, should recuse themselves from active participation.The response of President Kaler and his administration has so far been professional and even-handed, and he has brought outside reasoned analysis of the situation to focus rightly on better ways forward.That way forward to a better future is complex, will require lots of thoughtful deliberation, and is likely to be a rather rocky-road to travel with changes in processes, academic focus and research cultures.This university deserves and hopefully will reap the benefits provided from both continued thoughtful and studied input from outside and informed and debated directions provided best through the processes of faculty governance.
Jerry Cohen, Professor, member of the Faculty Senate and member of the Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, University of Minnesota 
Simply pathetic. 

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