Double Standard at Emory?

University has been accused of looking the other way at professors with conflicts of interest with pharmaceuticals. But it told a professor who criticized the industry to stop using university ID on his blog.
July 1, 2009

Emory University has been accused repeatedly over the last year of looking the other way while one of its prominent physicians built extremely close ties to the pharmaceutical industry and -- critics charge -- failed to adequately report those ties as required by university and federal regulations.

But what if you are an Emory professor who happens to differ with the pharmaceutical industry? Then, it appears, Emory watches you closely -- and if you are a blogger, the university can tell you that you must remove the Emory name from your Web site. That's why a recent post on the J. Douglas Bremner's blog Before You Take That Pill is called "I Am Removing the Name of My University From This Blog." Bremner is professor of psychiatry and radiology at Emory and as his blog title suggests (as does his book with the same name), he is an avid critic of the pharmaceutical industry.

In the post, he notes that he was recently ordered to remove the Emory name both by the interim chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and by the medical school's executive associate dean for faculty affairs. In the letters, which he provided to Inside Higher Ed, they tell Bremner to remove Emory's name, logo and letterhead from his blog because none of them can be used for "non-Emory business." He was also told to report on when he had removed Emory from his blog.

The letters cite complaints that the university received about a blog post Bremner made in January in which he criticized the eviction of a man with bipolar disorder who was being forced out of his apartment for smoking. Bremner made his point in the form of a mock letter "To Whom It May Concern" giving his blessing for the man to continue to smoke. According to Bremner's Emory superiors, complaints they received suggested that he was making "clinical recommendations for a patient you do not know and have never examined," and these postings made them feel the need to tell him to stop using the Emory name.

In an interview, Bremner defended his perspective -- not because he necessarily thinks that smoking is a good thing for the man he wrote about, but because, for some patients with mental conditions, quitting smoking may be quite problematic. But Bremner also noted that his blog isn't entirely serious and in fact uses satire, Photoshop, and combinations thereof with enough frequency that a careful reader might not take everything literally. A recent posting about the American Medical Association's concerns about health-care reform features a photo of some pigs, with an AMA official's head, for example.

Bremner's fans have noted with alarm his need to remove Emory's name from the blog and they have been e-mailing about the situation, noting, for example, that Emory isn't bothered by Charles Nemeroff, the professor at the center of the conflict of interest dispute, appearing with his Emory identification at events not related to the university (and sponsored by a pharmaceutical company) -- but clamps down on a blogger who criticizes the industry.

And other Emory faculty members who blog (but not anything to do with the pharmaceutical industry) don't appear to distress the university by having their affiliations noted.

Sarah E. Goodwin, director of media relations for Emory Health Sciences, said that Emory's objection to the use of its name in non-official places was "across the board" and not related to the content of Bremner's blog. When told about other blogs or Web sites where Emory professors' university affiliation was noted on non-Emory business, she said she didn't know why that was the case but insisted that the ban was "across the board."

She noted that Bremner has been "blogging for some period of time," and that "if you read it over a long period of time, you can see comments he makes that may be of concern." She declined to identify those comments.

Asked about the university demanding that its name to be removed from a blog that is anti-pharmaceutical industry while defending close ties of professors to that same industry, she said those were "two unrelated matters."

Throughout the day, Goodwin said she was trying to get more information about Emory's position, but was unable to do so.

Among those who received e-mail recently about the treatment of Bremner is Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors. Nelson said that he has no problem with Emory restricting the use of its logo, or even of asking professors to add a statement to a blog stating that opinions don't reflect those of the institution. But he said that it was wrong and a violation of academic freedom for Emory to tell a faculty blogger not to use the university's name in his identification or elsewhere on his blog.

"What they absolutely cannot do is say that he cannot identify himself as an Emory faculty member," he said.

As to the contrast between Emory's treatment of its faculty members who worked closely with pharmaceutical companies and of Bremner, Nelson said that the university "is not supposed to advocate for one commercial interest over other people's philosophical and personal commitments. It's deplorable and embarrassing that they would make distinctions like this."


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