By Peter Schmidt
Chronicle of Higher Education
The Academic Senate of UC Davis has rebuked several administrators for threatening legal action and various administrative punishments against a medical professor who criticized the campus health system’s promotion of a controversial cancer-screening test.
Last Friday, the Academic Senate’s Representative Assembly unanimously passed resolutions demanding that Claire Pomeroy, the medical school’s dean; Frederick J. Meyers, its executive associate dean; and David Levine, the campus health system’s counsel; promptly and publicly accept responsibility “for serious errors in judgment” and write letters of apology to the professor, Michael S. Wilkes.
The Representative Assembly’s resolutions also demand that the three administrators rescind all disciplinary actions taken or threatened against Wilkes, who is a professor in the Davis health system’s department of internal medicine. The resolutions also condemn Levine and the Davis campus’ chief legal counsel, Steven Drown, “for drafting inappropriate and apparently threatening letters that violated a faculty member’s right to academic freedom.”
The assembly called on UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi to take and report on “concrete steps to prevent future violations of academic freedom” and to have the medical school’s dean “take appropriate training to prevent academic freedom violations.”
In one of the resolutions, the assembly says it “expresses severe disapproval of the notion that the University of California may take legal action against professors whose scholarly publications or professional expert commentaries may be perceived by university administrators to be injurious to university interests.”
The resolutions provide only the titles, and not the names, of the administrators being rebuked or called on to take action, but The Chronicle was able to confirm the administrators’ identities.
Through a medical school spokeswoman, Pomeroy and Meyers comment on the resolutions the assembly adopted. The Davis campus issued a statement in which Ralph Hexter, its provost and executive vice chancellor, said that “the underlying assertions in this matter are deeply troubling” and that his office “will review this case and take appropriate actions.”
At the center of the controversy is an op-ed essay published by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010, days after faculty members at the medical school held a free, public “men’s health seminar” heavily focused on prostate-cancer treatment and prevention.
The essay, jointly written by Wilkes and Jerome Hoffman, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Southern California, criticized the seminar for promoting a controversial screening procedure known as the prostate-specific antigen test, or PSA test, despite scientific evidence that routine use of the test might cause more harm than good.
In their essay, Wilkes and Hoffman wrote that most public-health panels recommend against the PSA test because it cannot distinguish whether apparent cancers are malignant or benign, and the treatments prescribed in response to it are less likely to cure a cancer that poses any real threat than they are to leave men suffering from negative treatment effects, such as impotence or incontinence.
The essay speculated that the campus’ decision to offer the public seminar “just might have to do with money,” as administering the PSA test and treating cancers identified through it are “a large part of the practice of many urologists.”
Matter of timing
The Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility, which investigated Wilkes’ case, unanimously concluded in a report issued last month that the op-ed’s publication had led to “precipitous and inappropriate retaliatory statements of disciplinary sanction and legal action” against the professor, in violation of his academic freedom.
On the same day the article was published, Wilkes was copied on an e-mail from Meyers, the executive associate dean, to another administrator in which Meyers said Wilkes would not be invited to continue as head instructor of a course on doctoring after the current academic year and that the medical school planned to cut off funds for a Hungarian student exchange that Wilkes had overseen.
Meyers subsequently threatened to remove Wilkes from his position as director of global health for the Davis health system and to reassign Wilkes’ research space, the committee’s report says. The report says the executive associate dean had described such actions as being in the works for some time and characterized their timing in proximity with the publication of the controversial op-ed as purely coincidental. But, the report concludes, “the timing of events is highly suspect beyond any reasonable doubt.”
The academic freedom committee’s report concludes that Levine, the Davis health system’s lawyer, violated Wilkes’ academic freedom by sending him a letter arguing that the op-ed contained “numerous errors in fact” that “were injurious to the university interests and reputation and thus potentially actionable under the law of defamation.”
(Drown, the campus’ general counsel, subsequently issued a letter backing what Levine had said and characterizing it as offering information, rather than posing a threat.)
The various administrative actions threatened against Wilkes have never been carried out, but he has not been reassured they will not be carried out down the road, the report says. As a result, it says, he “works in fear for his job and has to withhold his professional knowledge from students and society for fear of further retaliation.”
The resolutions adopted last week by the Representative Assembly ratify the academic-freedom committee’s findings and adhere to the committee’s own recommendations.