Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Northwestern Upholds its "Brand," Never Mind Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Threats to free speech and academic freedom in health care were a major concern when we started Health Care Renewal.  Such threats may now be less anechoic, but do not seem to have diminished.

Censorship and the Resignation of Alice Dreger

The latest example was at Northwestern University. The basics of the case appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Alice Dreger just resigned her position of 10 years as "a clinical professor of medical humanities and bioethics."

What prompted her departure was the fallout over an article by William Peace, who at the time was a visiting professor in the humanities at Syracuse University. Mr. Peace wrote an essay for an issue of the journal, Atrium, that Ms. Dreger guest-edited. The essay is a frank account of a nurse who helped Mr. Peace regain his sexual function after he was paralyzed.

According to Ms. Dreger, Eric G. Neilson, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the university’s school of medicine, tried to censor the essay. The essay is straightforward in its description of sex, and includes multiple mentions of 'the dick police,' but the purpose is to illuminate what went on in the era prior to disability rights and studies.

As Mr. Peace writes, the unconventional approach of the unnamed nurse 'injected a compassionate eroticism that made me a better man.'

In her letter, Ms. Dreger writes that the university allowed the essay to be published online only after she and Mr. Peace threatened to talk publicly about what they saw as censorship. She writes that she was 'disgusted that the fear of bad publicity was apparently the only thing that could move this institution to stop censorship.'

Now the essay is out there, for all to see, 'dick police' and all. So what does Ms. Dreger want?

She asked the university to acknowledge that attempting to remove portions of the essay was a mistake and to promise not to do so in the future. 'They never acknowledged that the censorship was real,' Ms. Dreger said in an interview. 'I wanted a concrete acknowledgment and assurance that my work would not be subject to monitoring.' That, she said, would have been enough for her to remain.

The idea that institutions must acknowledge wrongdoing is central to Ms. Dreger's academic work.

More details about university managers' alleged attempts to control the content of an academic journal emerged in an article in the local newspaper, that is, the Chicago Tribune.  The managers wanted to appoint their own oversight committee to control journal content.

The journal Atrium stopped publication after faculty objected to the new oversight committee, which [University spokesman Alan] Cubbage has described as 'an editorial board of faculty members and others, as is customary for academic journals.'

Note, however,  that editorial boards are usually appointed by journal editors, not managers or executives.

Also, as noted in an article in Inside Higher Ed,

Dreger, who guest-edited the 'Bad Girls' issue [in which the controversial article first appeared], said that soon after publication, medical school administrators asked Atrium’s editors to remove the essay from the web, because the content was considered inflammatory and too damaging to the new Northwestern Medicine 'brand.' (Northwestern Memorial Health Care recently acquired Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine faculty practice and merged with Cadence Health to operate under the Northwestern Medicine banner.) The editor, another faculty member, refused to single out one article for censorship and took down the journal’s web archive instead.

Furthermore, the university administration's reaction to the publication of the article prompted another resignation,

The controversy prompted the resignation of Kristi Kirschner, a former clinical professor humanities and bioethics at Feinberg, in 2014. Kirschner, now an adjunct professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Inside Higher Ed earlier this summer that the alleged censorship had a 'chilling effect, antithetical to the idea of the university.'

As for that "chilling effect,"

A university spokesman declined to comment on Dreger’s case on Tuesday, saying it was a personnel issue. He also declined to answer general questions about censorship or the status of Atrium, which recently had its funding reduced, causing the journal to be canceled.

Atrium’s editor, Katie Watson, an assistant professor of bioethics and medical humanities, declined an interview but said the funding cut was not related to the 'Bad Girls' issue or censorship.

She referred additional questions to a post she wrote for Peace’s blog, Bad Cripple, in June, in which she said that she was disappointed with Peace for taking certain details of the case public, and in which she confirmed that a university content oversight committee meeting had been 'disheartening.'

"[T]he medical school required me to allow a vetting committee to review my editorial choices and veto them if they were perceived to conflict with other institutional interests," Watson wrote.

So note that the allegations of censorship have come from at least three separate faculty members at Northwestern, and from the author of the censored article, a faculty member at another institution.  Furthermore, on university spokesperson has contradicted these charges.  

Previous Mysterious Events at Northwestern

Of further concern is that this case may be part of a pattern.

Two years ago we wrote (here and here) about another case, albeit mysterious and convoluted, at Northwestern in which a faculty member, Dr Charles Bennett, resigned after being accused of mismanaging the finances of a government grant.  However, although he was responsible for the scientific management of the project, university managers, nor Dr Bennet, were responsible for its finances.  While the university settled allegations of financial mismanagement, and a university staffer pleaded guilty to related charges, a university statement implied that it was mainly Dr Bennett's fault, per the Cancer Letter

'As the settlement makes clear, the covered conduct in the settlement involved allegations focused on Dr. Charles Bennett, and grants for which Dr. Bennett was the principal investigator,' Northwestern officials said in a statement.

In addition,

The statement was signed by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, Provost Daniel Linzer, and Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Feinberg School of Medicine Eric Neilson.

Note that the Vice President and Dean Neilsen above was the same Dean who Prof Dreger accused of trying to censor her journal.

Suspicions were raised at that time that the treatment of Dr Bennett might have been somehow related to how he made himself unpopular by authoring research that suggested Aranesp, a blockbuster Amgen epoetin drug, was much more dangerous than it seemed.  The Cancer Letter had interviewed one of Dr Bennett's collaborators,

[Michael]  Henke confesses to wondering whether the many powerful enemies Bennett made in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have struck back.

'We shouldn’t feed paranoia,' Henke said. 'However, given the exclusively positive experience when collaborating with his group, makes me wonder whether this litigation might follow some very particular other issues.'

And recently the editor of the Cancer Letter, and the author of the above article, has been fighting subpeonas from Amgen intended to make him reveal his sources of negative information about Aranesp, (look here and here).

As far as I can tell, the questions I raised about the case of Dr Bennett (look here and here) have never been answered.

Nonetheless, the case of Prof Dreger has also been rather anechoic.  It was also covered by the Times of London Higher Education Supplement, and inspired comment from FIRE, but has otherwise not gotten national media attention, or any apparent coverage in medical or health care journals.  

Sometimes you may be paranoid, and sometimes someone may be out to get you.
Summary and Comments

So, to summarize, multiple sources suggested that top Northwestern Medicine leadership attempted to censor an academic publication edited and led by university faculty.  After publication of an article apparently controversial for its sexual content, but which likely also brought up valid issues about compassionate treatment of disabled patients versus traditional ethical concerns about boundary issues for health professionals, university leaders imposed an oversight committee which apparently was more concerned about the instiution's "brand" and other "institutional interests" than about free discussion of important health care issues.  The chilling effects of this attempt at censorship seemed to include resignations by two faculty members, and the demise of the journal.

Thus it appears that the managers were putting public relations and revenue concerns ahead of the fundamental academic values of free speech and academic freedom, thereby threatening these values.  In a post on, Craig Klugman reminded us,

 According to the American Association of University Professors (1940):
'Academic freedom is essential to these purposes [the search for truth and its free exposition] and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth.'

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP and an English professor says that academic freedom:
'Gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.'

Even the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities, which is known for not taking positions on 'substantive moral and policy issues,' does take positions to support academic freedom and has done so in the past.

Since 1940, the notion of academic freedom has been a core tenet of university and faculty life. The idea was born in response to centralized governments telling researchers what they could and could not study and what they should and should not teach.

So free expression and academic freedom remain under threat in academic health care institutions. These threats seem in part to stem from managers' continuing inclinations to put commercial concerns ahead of the academic mission, perhaps fueled by prodigious amounts of money waved around by health care corporations looking to make their marketing appear more scientifically based.  These threats may be partially enabled by the anechoic effect, a sort of second order self censorship, so that cases of censorship are another kind of recent unpleasantness that get little public attention.

Students, health care professsionals, and faculty members who care about medical education and research ought to be asking some hard questions about the leadership of their organizations.  It looks like Northwestern students, trainees, and faculty members could have lots of questions to ask.

As we have said until blue in the face, true health care reform would enable leadership of health care organizations that upholds and is willing to be accountable for putting patients' and the public's health first, and leadership of health care academic organizations that also puts honest, transparent research and education ahead of commercial interests.   

1 comment:

Brad Evans said...

The medical staff bylaws of Northwestern Memorial Hospital look fishy to me, and I wonder if this too is a sign that administration is trying to control physicians.

First, the pdf size seems large to me (>600 MB) while U of M's medical staff bylaws are under 400 MG.

Second, there is a section on remedial action by the Board. It seems that the Board, on its own, can institute remedial action against physicians.