Intimidation Tactics?

June 6, 2012

At 7:02 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2010, scant hours after an op-ed he had written for the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing his university appeared in print, Michael Wilkes received an e-mail from an administrator at the University of California at Davis. Wilkes, a professor at the medical school, was told that he would no longer lead a program sequence that taught better patient care, and support for a Hungarian student exchange program he headed would be withdrawn.

Within weeks, Wilkes was told that he would be removed as director of global health for the UC Davis Health System. He also received letters from the university’s health system counsel suggesting that the university could potentially sue him for defamation over the op-ed. 

Now, a committee on academic freedom at the university that investigated allegations of intimidation and harassment against Wilkes has found them to be true. The faculty committee said in its report, a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed, that the actions of the university administrators cast doubt on its ability to be a “truthful and accountable purveyor of knowledge and services."

The group has asked the dean and other top officials at the university’s school of medicine to write letters of apology to the professor, admit to errors of judgment, stop proposed disciplinary actions against him and take steps to prevent future violations of academic freedom. This week, representatives of the university’s Academic Senate are expected to vote on similar resolutions against the administrators.

The investigation came about after Wilkes filed a written complaint to the committee in late 2010, alleging that there had been a “blatant breach of my academic freedom.” The fracas started after Wilkes, an expert on prostate cancer, co-wrote the op-ed (along with a University of Southern California professor) questioning the efficacy of the prostate-specific antigen screening test, often referred to as the PSA, only days after some faculty members at the school were part of an event that promoted  the test, according to documents. The other groups associated with the event were the American Urological Association Foundation and the National Football League.

The event "doesn’t even acknowledge a problem with prostate cancer screening,” the op-ed said. “Contrast this to the comments of Dr. Richard Ablin, the inventor of the PSA test, who has publicly called it ‘a hugely expensive public health disaster,’ with accuracy ‘hardly better than a coin toss.’ ” In his op-ed, Wilkes (and his co-author) asked why the university had supported the event and wondered “whether it just might have to do with money.”

"Testing for and treating PSA-identified cancer is a large part of the practice of many urologists so it may not be surprising that urology groups take a far more positive stance on the test than almost any other doctors," Wilkes said in the article.

The report from the university’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility does not identify the medical school’s administrators by name, only by their titles. The School of Medicine’s executive associate dean, who is referenced several times in the report, is Fred Meyers; Claire Pomeroy is the school's dean.

Meyers and Pomeroy said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that it would be inappropriate to comment on personnel matters and findings that are being reviewed by the university’s Academic Senate. “We deeply regret that our actions in handling this particular personnel matter are perceived by some as a violation of academic freedom. Academic freedom is fundamental to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge, and we are personally and professionally committed to upholding that freedom within our institution,” they said. “We respect and protect the rights of our faculty to pursue their research and teaching as they wish, so long as it is in a manner that is consistent with professional standards.”

Wilkes, who is in Tanzania, could not be reached for comment.

According to the report, Meyers received several faculty complaints about the article after it appeared online and he was upset that the debate over the PSA test was playing out in the media, rather than in a scientific journals or forums. He told the committee that the timing of the actions against Wilkes were coincidental. For example, he alleged that the Hungarian student exchange program was being run poorly and Wilkes had been warned numerous times.

However, Meyers acknowledged to the committee that the e-mail sent to Wilkes “has an appearance of impropriety, based upon its close proximity to the timing of the article, even though he denies that the timing is connected,” the report said.

And although none of the threatened actions against Wilkes have been carried out, committee members felt that his academic freedom had been compromised.

James Beaumont, an emeritus professor of public health at Davis who serves on the academic freedom committee, said that the university had not retracted its threat of disciplinary actions even though it hadn’t pursued them.

Gregory Pasternack, a professor of hydrology at the university who also serves on the committee, said the threats against Wilkes were a very serious problem. “There is no question that he has had to adjust his behavior and it has affected his ability to teach, write commentary or interact with his students,” he said.

Pasternack pointed out that when a faculty committee at the University of California at San Diego criticized a dean’s decision to order a professor not to talk about and evaluate another professor’s research, the university accepted the committee’s findings and said that they regretted the administrator's statements.

“There have been egregious actions by the administrators at the medical school,” Pasternack said. “I am hoping that the university will take a contrite approach and recognize the mistakes they have made.”

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