Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Who Is Really "Bullying?" - Academic Leaders and the Stifling of Critics of Conflicts of Interests

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.

Columbia University

We recently posted about reactions at the university to revelations in the movie "Inside Job" that the Dean of the Business School and one of its prominent professors failed to disclose pay they received that might have motivated their enthusiastic promotion of economic policies that helped contribute to the Great Recession. 

These reactions occurred six months after the movie came out.  A Columbia Spectator student columnist asked why it took so long:
Why have students waited until April to address the consequences of “Inside Job” when the film was released in October? Why has our reaction been delayed by seven months?

Her postulated answer:

Why should Columbia need an outside documentary to point out its ethical failures?

Embedded in the Spectator news article about the film—published April 15— is a quote from University Senator Liya Yu that offers a frightening answer to our question about the delayed student reaction. 'I think people in the Business School haven’t responded because they are afraid,' Yu was quoted saying. 'If you are the dean of a school, obviously all the students are going to be dependent on you for their careers and futures. It’s hard for them to do anything.' I think this explanation extends to students beyond those currently enrolled in the Business School. In fact, its implications pose a threat to student journalism as a whole. For the first time in history, everything that a student journalist writes during his or her time in college is published on the Internet. This is a good thing for many reasons: It increases readership, allows writers to cross-reference easily, etc. But it also creates a permanent, compromising memory that is available forever to anyone who seeks it.

From the moment the college application process began, we were told that the content of our Facebook profiles could be used against us in admissions. We have learned to censor our traceable online behavior so as not to compromise our professional or educational prospects. Unfortunately, this has led to journalistic over-caution. We fear that anything we say now will be used against us later. And maybe it’s true. After all, not enough time has passed for us to take a careful account of the degree to which students’ first publications can affect their futures. Even editors have advised me to mitigate the strongest claims in my columns for fear of consequences to come. Perhaps they are right. But the most insidious kind of censorship—the hardest to recognize, the hardest to combat—is self-censorship, the persistent imaginative failure that prevents us from even recognizing what we should be writing about.

In the Internet age, bravery in student journalism is not trailing a military unit on the Iraqi front lines. Rather, it is the willingness to address controversial issues as they surface, not once these points of view have become popular. Our brand of fear—which is frankly selfish—censors our thoughts almost unnoticed. Next time, let’s skip the delayed reaction. I for one hope to do better.

So students may fear challenging conflicted faculty or administrators for fear of immediate academic punishment and future harm to career prospects in a society in which criticism of acquisitive leaders is decreasingly tolerated.

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.


Anonymous said...

You may also find this link of interest:


Halifax newspaper buckles under to threat from psychiatrist turned politician

The gentleman lost.

Steve Lucas

InformaticsMD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
InformaticsMD said...

Academic leaders are often arrogant bullies, causing some to self-censor on writing about them and/or their misdeeds.

However, the availability of internet information works both ways. The counterpoint is that the web also makes available the misdeeds of individuals when those misdeeds are expose.

Sooner or later this "forever" memory will serve as a limiting factor in these folks' career advancement.

-- SS

Afraid said...

The authors, after being flatlined, repeatedly humiliated and asked to do every crap job there is, will be let go when any economic bubble hits or other excuse presents itself.