Under siege in the ivory tower
Anne McIlroy, The Globe and Mail, 8th September 2001
Public issues - from genetic engineering to psychiatric illness - have become more complex than ever, requiring academic specialists to help sort them out. Yet Canadian universities get more and more of their funding from private, corporate interests. What happens when these facts collide - for example, when a scientist discovers that a funder's drug is dangerous? As one researcher put it: 'This place is a fortress'
Some call them our kept universities.
A professor is told to move her lab into a pesticide-tainted storeroom shortly after she criticizes genetically modified food -- which just happens to be the product of companies linked with the school. Another corporation tries to prevent a doctor from telling her patients about the dangers of a drug, and the university-affiliated hospital she works for does nothing to support her.
A job offer is withdrawn after a researcher criticizes a popular psychiatric drug. And even in the humanities, a scholar who studies the history of scholarship itself is turned down for a high-profile post, apparently because of his controversial views on corporate influence.
In an era of proliferating university-corporate partnerships, academic freedom isn't what it used to be. And the ideas that are kept from all Canadians as a result could be hazardous to our health.
Just ask David Healy. The British researcher saw a job offer from the University of Toronto and one of its teaching hospitals evaporate after he expressed concern about the potential negative effects of antidepressants such as Prozac.
None of his colleagues at the U of T or the affiliated Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) publicly questioned the decision, and several privately told The Globe and Mail that they were afraid that doing so would cost them the research funding their careers depend upon.
This week, though, a group of 27 leading scientists from around the world came to Healy's defence, publicly accusing the University of Toronto and one of its teaching hospitals of muzzling academic freedom. They said the decision had "besmirched" the name of Canada's largest university and "poisoned the reputation" of the CAMH.
Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac, is a major donor to the centre, and contributed $1.5-million to its $10-million capital fund. In 2000-01, the company also financed $1.3-million in research under a formal collaborative relationship.
Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies now fund 16 to 30 per cent of all research at big medical schools such as McGill, Queen's and the universities of Toronto and British Columbia. The pharmaceutical industry now funds 42 per cent of medical research in Canada.
Large donations from pharmaceutical and biotechnology giants and other corporations pay for new buildings and additions that carry their names and corporate logos. Corporate funds allow universities to update old laboratories, fund academic chairs (often named for their sponsors) and pay for expensive scientific equipment and research projects.
Indeed, universities across the country are far more dependent on corporations than ever before, and keeping donors happy has naturally become a priority. While it's most visible at medical schools, the Trojan-horse effect of corporate largesse is, critics say, afoot everywhere in the modern academy.
In 1999, for example, the Council of Canadians asked tenured University of Guelph plant biologist Ann Clark to set up a Web site about genetically modified foods. The professor of sustainable agriculture solicited scientific analyses and critiques of GM foods from about 40 academics.
Ten agreed to participate, but the rest said it was too risky to speak out. Many said they would post papers on Genetic Engineering Alert (www.canadians.org/ge-alert) -- but only anonymously. Most of those willing to go public had retired from academe and were no longer at risk of losing their labs, research funding or promotions if their views upset large corporate donors and research partners.
"The rest were worried about being blackballed, and I admire that they were even willing to contribute," Clark says. "Protecting their identities was a constructive response to a stifling situation."
Within months of launching GE Alert, Clark got a taste of what her colleagues were worried about: She was stunned to learn that her laboratory was being arbitrarily moved to a seed-storage room that had been sprayed with pesticides over the years.
The university denies the move had anything to do with her anti-GMO views, but Clark says she is convinced it did. "It is not harassment, that is too strong of a word for what happens to academics who go against the corporate line," she says. But "it means you don't get grants funded, it means you don't get invited to collaborate on things. It means when you speak at a meeting, people don't listen. You are marginalized."
Over the past 10 years, the University of Guelph has doubled the amount of funding it gets from corporations, which now accounts for about 15 per cent of its total research budget. In 1999-2000, the year Clark launched the Web site, the university received $1.2-million in research funding from Novartis, one of the corporate champions of genetically modified crops.
While still fighting the lab relocation, Clark posted a critical analysis of the federal government's way of evaluating genetically modified foods on the GE Alert site. Her boss, dean Rob McLaughlin, publicly denounced her for "unethical" behaviour, which touched off a furor on campus.
McLaughlin eventually apologized, saying he had been worried people would think she was speaking on behalf of the university on an issue that lies outside her own field: She specializes in pastures, not genetically altered crops. However, many of the concerns she had expressed were echoed this year by an independent panel of scientists appointed by the government.
McLaughlin, now vice-president of alumni affairs, denies he criticized her out of worry that her comments would offend corporate donors. He says at least one other researcher was also asked to move to accommodate a departmental restructuring. Academic freedom at Guelph is well-protected and cherished, he says. "We have a long history of faculty being able to express their views on everything."
In the end, Clark wasn't forced into the storage room. Her new lab is very small for her research team, but at least she doesn't have to worry about pesticide residues. A small victory -- but so far, there have been few wins in the battle to preserve academic freedom.
"Academic freedom is what allows universities to fulfill their social responsibility to the public. It assures that faculty are free to say what they feel about any idea, proposal, or research question they are examining," says Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers and editor of a book called The Corporate Campus.
"Only when faculty can speak freely are the public able to trust that advice and conclusions are not corrupted by special interests of powerful groups."
And at a time when many public-policy issues have gotten so technical as to be beyond the grasp of a layperson, Canadians have come to rely on universities to provide objective analysis. David Healy, for instance, is one of the few people in the world with the expertise and the inclination to pour through drug-company data to find evidence that the popular antidepressant Prozac may cause some people to kill themselves.
Yet now some academics are loath to risk retribution by asking questions to which corporate donors may not want the answers.
"I'm not sure I would say [academic freedom] is dead, but it is under serious threat," Ann Clark says. "What tends to happen is it is retired academics or government scientists or very senior people who no longer fear retribution who are able to speak out. The younger ones, who are most vulnerable, can't really say anything."
University professors have historically been vulnerable to pressures from the ruling forces of the day. Academic freedom, the lofty ideal all Canadian universities say they embrace, is defined on most campuses as meaning that professors can speak their minds without fear of reprisal.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, academic freedom meant that the pope's soldiers would protect scholars from the local authorities, York University professor David Noble says. "They just had to do everything the pope said." Noble has written extensively on the history of universities, and took a starring role in his own academic-freedom drama in the spring.
In 20th-century universities, starting with the Second World War, the main patrons of institutions were the agencies of the state, primarily the military in the United States, he says.
In the mid-1970s, the phrase "intellectual capital" became fashionable, and industrial countries turned to universities as their economies shifted away from manufacturing toward high-tech. Universities were no longer ivory towers, and began to play a key role in the new economy. The United States led the way, followed by Canada and to a lesser extent Europe, where universities have traditionally been less utilitarian and less reliant on corporate funding.
In the United States, it became routine for university presidents to sit on the boards of large multinational corporations. Noble conducted a study at the end of the 1980s that showed the presidents of U.S. universities often made more from corporate directorships and retainers than from their salaries.
In Canada, the federal government cut back funding for basic research in the 1980s and universities began turning to the private sector to keep their laboratories running. There has been an injection of new federal money in the past few budgets, but most of it is tied to joint ventures with industry. If researchers want the new funds, they have to show they are working with corporate partners.
Closer ties between industry and academia is a positive development, argues Tom Brzustowski, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, one of three funding agencies through which federal money is delivered to researchers. "If we help Canadian companies produce new products, then that is new economic activity, which means new jobs and prosperity."
In medical schools, close ties to industry give researchers an opportunity to conduct clinical trials and laboratory experiments that could benefit millions of Canadians.
But they also create the potential for wrenching conflicts of interest.
Turk, whose Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has been devoted to protecting academic freedom since the 1950s, claims there has been an "unprecedented explosion" in the violation of academic freedom in the past several years.
The most famous, no doubt, is the case of Nancy Olivieri. In 1996,the University of Toronto researcher was carrying out a study at the Hospital for Sick Children on deferiprone, an experimental drug for patients with a rare blood disorder called thalassemia. The research was sponsored by Apotex, the drug's manufacturer.
When Olivieri decided she had to warn patients about potential problems with the drug, Apotex threatened her with legal action to enforce a confidentiality agreement she had signed. She charges that the university, which was courting the largest donation in its history from Apotex, did not back her up legally or morally. Four other doctors, who allege they were harassed and punished when they spoke out on the matter, have joined her in a grievance against the university.
The CAUT launched an independent investigation by three prominent Canadian academics to report on the incident, which is expected to be made public in the fall.
In both the Healy and the Olivieri cases, the University of Toronto denied academic freedom was at issue. Senior officials argued that Olivieri was in a purely scientific dispute and that Healy's case was a human-resources issue the teaching hospital had right to manage as it saw fit.
In both Healy's and Olivieri's cases, rumours circulated quickly through the university and the media about their characters: She was difficult, a troublemaker who couldn't get along with others. He was a Scientologist, a wacko practitioner of junk science.
And academic peers are often enrolled in the character-assassination campaign. In fact, the official explanation of why Healy did not become the clinical director for the mood and anxiety program at the CAMH is that his future colleagues were so disturbed by the views he expressed in a Nov. 30 speech on campus that they didn't want him in their midst.
He had already accepted the job when he participated in the colloquium about psychiatry in the 21st century. His views about the dangers of the family of antidepressants that includes Prozac were well known in the international psycho-pharmacology community: He believes that the popular drugs can cause a small minority of patients, as few as 1 per cent, to fall into a state of extreme anxiety and cause them to harm themselves or others. Given that 40 million people around the world have taken Prozac, Healy argues that this is a significant public-health issue; Eli Lilly insists that Prozac is safe.
In the Nov. 30 speech, he repeated those arguments, and said the data show that Prozac and similar antidepressants may have been responsible for one suicide for every day they have been on the market.
According to the letter sent months later by the Centre for Addiction's CEO, Paul Garfinkel, the "extremity" of the views expressed in the speech disturbed many of his future colleagues: "Your future colleagues simply did not want you here as a leader of a clinical program, which was the job for which you were recruited."
Turk and Healy believe that there is more to the story, and are considering legal action. They say very few of his future colleagues -- including Garfinkel -- were in the audience on the fateful day.
But during the period between January last year, when Healy was first offered the position, and November, when the job was withdrawn, he published a critical paper in a journal devoted to ethical issues published by the Hastings Center in New York. After it appeared, Eli Lilly pulled its $25,000 (U.S.) annual donation from the Hastings Center.
Healy then presented data at a conference from a study he had done that found two out of 20 healthy volunteers felt suicidal while taking a Prozac-like antidepressant. And in July, 2000, a month before he accepted a formal written offer from the CAMH, Healy had a run-in with Charles Nemeroff, a powerful and highly respected U.S. psychiatrist who has received funding from Eli Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies.
Healy had been preparing to act as an expert witness in several cases where families were suing pharmaceutical companies because they believed psychiatric drugs had caused a loved one to commit suicide or to kill others. At a medical conference in Britain, Healy says, Nemeroff aggressively warned him that it would be bad for his career to get involved. Healy recalls the encounter as "scary."
Nemeroff's office referred all calls to his lawyer, who has not responded to a request for an interview. Nemeroff attended Healy's speech in Toronto in November; the CAMH has confirmed that it consulted him about their new hire.
Within days of the speech, David Goldbloom, physician-in-chief at the CAMH, was sending urgent e-mails to Healy saying they had to talk, but Healy was away. When he got back to Wales, he found another e-mail message from Goldbloom telling him the job offer had been withdrawn.
Turk says he believes he knows why the CAMH got cold feet. "I think it is likely that some influential people said, 'If you hire Healy, you are going to have a very hard time raising drug-company money for research,' " says the teachers'-association head. "And the CAMH administration panicked, and decided to dump him, precipitously."
The CAMH says the decision about Healy had nothing to do with fundraising or with their discussion with Nemeroff. Goldbloom has declined to be interviewed.
Turk says Healy's case is the most egregious violation of academic freedom in Canada in years, one that means no job in academe is safe. He admires him for coming forward, risking his reputation, when he could have stayed quietly at his job at the University of Wales, where he continues to conduct research and treat patients.
Yet his story has drawn not a single word of public support from anyone on staff at the CAMH or the University of Toronto's medical school. Four researchers told The Globe and Mail they disagreed with, were even outraged by, the decision to let Healy go. But they were unwilling to go on the record, for fear of losing their labs or research funding.
"This place is a fortress," one said.
"What happened to David Healy is a unacceptable violation of academic freedom," another said. "But I don't want to lose what I have spent my life working for."
One man who watched the Healy drama with intense scholarly interest was David Noble. The York historian has documented the rise of corporate influence at universities in Canada, and says he wasn't surprised that doctors at the CAMH weren't willing to speak up. "They see that they have reason to be afraid, but rather than stand up to it, and expose it collectively, they just cave."
Less a month after Healy went public, Noble, a left-wing activist and vocal critic of the commercialization of universities, found he had a more personal reason to be interested.
Noble had been selected by the faculty of humanities at Simon Fraser University to hold the prestigious J. S. Woodsworth chair, which was created to foster critical debate over public issues, in memory of the labour activist, pacifist and politician.
The search committee sought input from 13 outside academics about Noble's academic work and activism. But the university administration blocked his appointment after Noble refused its highly unusual request to do a background check -- using several academics he has publicly criticized as references. None of them, he says, were experts in his field.
Meanwhile, the administration alleged that the department of humanities hadn't followed proper hiring procedure, including making sure women were considered for the post. Rumours spread rapidly around campus that Noble was a difficult man, an undesirable addition to the tenured staff.
"It is almost like something out of the movies," Noble says. "The J. S. Woodsworth chair is named for the founder of the CCF, which was the forerunner of the NDP. He began his career in jail, speaking against the First World War and the Winnipeg strike. . . . They name a chair after him, and the endowment doesn't come from Eli Lilly, it comes from workers and farmers across Canada.
"If there is anything that could be called a people's chair, this is it. They select me. I'm an historian and a scholar, but I've been an activist my whole life. But then it is blocked by the corporate university."
Unlike Healy, though, Noble has gotten the outspoken support of half-a-dozen academics at Simon Fraser. They circulated details, in e-mails around campus, that contradict the administration's story. Ian Angus, an SFU professor of humanities, says it is hard to find any other explanation for these events other than Noble's left-wing views. "Bear in mind that if the administration is about to violate your academic freedom, they do not send you a signed memo announcing the fact. The stated 'reasons' have to be something else," Angus says.
Lawrin Armstrong, a history professor and member of the search committee that chose Noble, doesn't yet have tenure. He says colleagues warned him not to speak out, but as a member of the search committee that originally selected Noble, he had no choice but to denounce his bosses for their "unseemly scramble for negative references."
The administration said that Noble was not "collegial" because he refused permission for the background check, says Armstrong, a Marxist historian. " 'Collegial' appears to mean not holding opinions that are likely to offend powerful interests in the university or potential corporate sponsors."
To clear the air, the administration has launched an investigation. And the Canadian Association of University Teachers has started its own probe, expected to report by the end of the summer. Noble is also considering legal action to get SFU to follow its own hiring policy. He is confident that he will get the job in the end, although his supporters aren't so sure.
His case marks a departure in the fight for academic freedom in Canada. With Clark, Olivieri and Healy, it is easy to see why university officials might fear losing funding: All three directly threatened the potential profits of corporate donors.
Noble is a historian, an expert in the history of technology, not a medical researcher. He criticizes corporations, but he is not likely to affect their bottom lines. In the past, humanities faculties have generally been free of the kind of pressures medical schools, for instance, have been coping with for years.
"We were amazed an appointment like this would provoke this kind of reaction," Armstrong says. "You could make the argument that corporate interests are actually dictating the agenda in departments that have nothing directly to do with them at all."
In all four cases -- Clark, Olivieri, Healy, and Noble -- the universities don't admit that academic freedom has been violated. But the events appear to have had an impact: SFU has launched its inquiry; and in March, the University of Toronto moved to tighten ethical guidelines governing medical research, specifically citing the crumbling barrier between the university and corporations. The new rules will allow researchers to go public immediately if they have any concern about the safety of the drug.
Even Brzustowski, the staunch defender of closer corporate-university ties, says he hopes universities can learn from the Olivieri and Healy cases.
"These are public institutions," Jim Turk says, "and they are very sensitive to criticism they are not acting in the public interest. In the end, the best weapon we have is the ability to turn the spotlight on these kinds of cases, and let Canadians know this is something they should be worried about."
And Ann Clark says the duty to defend the public interest falls to academics like herself and her colleagues. "This is my job. I am a tenured faculty member and the purpose of tenure was to shield academics from external interests who have a vested interests in things not being said," she says.
"I fault academia and government, for not speaking up, for not defending the interests of the people who are paying our salaries. We are the ones who are at fault, we are not doing the job we are paid to do, we are privileged to do, because we have been granted tenure."Copyright (C) 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.