Defenders of the Indefensible: Jim Dean, University of North Carolina

Starting in 2011, Carolyn Willingham, a tutor at the University of North Carolina, complained to the press about fake classes for athletes. In place of an education, she said, athletes, some of whom could barely read, were encouraged to take fake classes, such as classes that never met.

Jim Dean, executive vice chancellor and provost, responded to her charges like this:

Dean asked Willingham to provide raw test data supporting her analysis. She declined, explaining that she’d obtained the confidential information by promising the university’s Institutional Review Board not to share it with anyone. She told Dean he could obtain the data directly from the athletic department, which gathered it in the first place. He declined to do as she suggested. “If she had the proof,” Dean says, “why wouldn’t she share the proof?”

Later Dean handled Willingham’s charges like this:

Dean said of Willingham: “She’s said our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie.”

In fact, Willingham had said

18 out of the 183 special admit athletes whose records she assessed read at roughly a third-grade level. An additional 110 of the athletes, she said, read at between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. She never said that most, let alone all, of the 800 athletes at UNC are illiterate, and she said nothing at all about the other 18,000 undergraduates.

When challenged, Dean conceded he’d misspoken.

Even the reporter, apparently, finds Dean’s defense repugnant. An important detail is that Willingham, who is wealthy, did not need the job. She was free to say whatever she wanted.

Cheating at Caltech

Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is. Continue reading “Cheating at Caltech”

Assorted Links

  • Girl brain-dead after tonsillectomy. No doubt her parents were not told (a) your tonsils are part of your immune system, an essential part of your body, and (b) tonsil removal is associated with a 50% higher death rate. As I said here, an “evidence-based” evaluation of whether tonsillectomies are good or bad failed to mention both of these things, along with a ton of other negative evidence.
  • Reverse graffiti. I think of this blog as reverse graffiti.
  • Interview with Peter Higgs. “Believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.”
  • UC Berkeley Psychology Department fires staff employee (in his 24th year), apparently for union activities. “Francis Katsuura created a Cal Agenda account to track all time that Paul Haller attended bargaining [sessions]. No other department has created such an account.”

Thanks to Matt Cassell.

The Jenijoy La Belle Tenure Case at Caltech

Jenijoy La Belle is a Professor of English at Caltech. Her tenure case, which started in the 1970s, is the main topic of this interview. Because of one person — Robert Huttenback — she was at first denied tenure. Amazingly, she managed to get tenure anyway. In the middle of the fight, which promised to become very embarrassing to Caltech, Huttenback became Chancellor of UC Santa Barbara.

Here is a related story from another interview:

One day on a Saturday or Sunday, I was in Baxter [Baxter Hall of Social Sciences and] picking up my mail upstairs. There was nobody else there but Huttenback and a young Turk— a young professor of economics, I guess, who is now of course a famous full professor somewhere, perhaps even retired. They were in the office that Jenijoy was going to have and next to it was the men’s toilet. And they were talking about playing a joke. The goal was to make the situation as uncomfortable—more than uncomfortable, offensive—for Jenijoy as possible. And I will not—I remember exactly what they were doing, but it is so crude that I will not tell you.

Here is one of La Belle’s comments:

In 1982, someone sent me a clipping from the Santa Barbara News and Review, from a column that sounded more like gossip than news. But it simply began: “Even in UCSB circles familiar with Chancellor Robert Huttenback’s perquisites of power, the situation has caused comment. Why do university cars and drivers transport Freda Huttenback, his better half, on personal business? Campus employees, from maintenance to clerical workers, tell us of receiving a Xeroxed map to the Huttenbacks’ home and directions to chauffeur her wherever she asks. These trips have reportedly included visits to a Ventura chiropractor. “Huttenback defends the practice by calling his wife a consultant to the university on interior design matters, saying that she occasionally needs a university car and driver for decorating business. Huttenback first denied he or his wife ever used the car for personal errands: ‘Whoever told you that must be someone I fired,’ was his reply.”

Huttenback was eventually convicted of fraud. He defends himself here.

The Corruption of Drug Trials

In a clinical trial of a new antipsychotic drug done at the University of Minnesota, a man named Dan Weiss was given a choice: be hospitalized in a psych ward or, shockingly, “take part in an industry-funded study of antipsychotic drugs”. The usual choice is between hospitalization or conventional treatment. Weiss chose to be in the clinical trial. During the trial he killed himself.

An FDA investigator named Sharon Matson decided that Weiss had not been coerced into participating! During a trial, Moira Keane, the head of the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board, which of course is meant to protect human subjects, claimed the purpose of the board was not to protect human subjects. The purpose of the board, Keane said, was “to make sure that Olson and the trial sponsor had a plan to protect subjects.” This is false. IRBs sometimes measure compliance, not just plans.

After Weiss’s mom sued the University of Minnesota and lost,

The university filed a legal action against Mary, demanding that she pay the university $57,000 to cover its legal expenses. Gale Pearson, one of Mary’s attorneys, says that while such suits are technically permissible, she had never seen one filed in her previous 14 years of legal practice. The university agreed to drop the lawsuit against Mary only when she agreed not to appeal the judge’s decision.

The article by Carl Elliott about this case also contains excellent discussion of how drug companies shape clinical trials to get the results they want — and when that fails, hide the results. The effect is that new drugs are approved that are worse than the drugs they replace.

Thanks to James Andrewartha.

Academic Horror Story (Duke University)

Duke University officials have known since 2009 that there were serious problems with Anil Potti’s research — serious enough to believe it is fraudulent. Here is how one researcher put it:

The Duke investigators said their data showed that expression of a particular gene, ERCC1, correlated with response to some agents. However, the commercial microarray chip the Duke investigators said they used in their experiments does not include that gene. “I admit this is one for which I do not have a simple, charitable explanation,” [said] Dr. Baggerly.

Potti, you may remember, lied about having a Rhodes Fellowship. Duke’s first investigation found him innocent.

Later events caused Duke officials to reconsider. They are still making up their minds. This is a horror story because a clinical trial based on Potti’s research is in progress. A hundred cancer patients are getting treated according to Potti’s research — that is, according to research that is probably fraudulent. Duke has done nothing to warn the patients or stop the trial.

The whole thing reminds me of UC Berkeley researchers taking weeks to tell a woman she had a large lump in her brain. As if their legal liability were more important than her life.

Why UC Berkeley is Investigating Peter Duesberg

In November, UC Berkeley launched an investigation of Professor Peter Duesberg for misconduct associated with a paper of his retracted from Medical Hypotheses. According to the letter sent Duesberg informing him of the investigation, there were two allegations. One was that his paper had been withdrawn by the publisher due to “issues of credibility and false claims.” The other was that “you failed to declare a relevant conflict of interest with regard to the commercial interests of your co-authors.” Duesberg tried to learn more about what he was accused of, without success. Finally the university sent him the letters of complaint that led to the investigation. Here they are.


letter2.1 letter2.2 letter2.3

The first letter is incredibly vague. The “issues of credibility and false claims” aren’t spelled out and it is unclear why the University of California should care that “Bruce Rasnick failed to declare his conflict of interest.” The idea that publishing a dissenting paper about AIDS is an “attempt to discredit the academic community” is worthy of Orwell.

The second letter has several strange features. First, it contradicts itself. It says:

[Statement 1] Until recently, he [Rasnick] worked as a researcher for a company, the Dr Rath Health Foundation Canada [owned by Mattias Rath]

[Statement 2] [Rasnick’s] former (and possibly current) employer, Mattias Rath.

Statement 1 says Rasnick no longer works for Rath. Statement 2 says he might still work for Rath.

Second, its logic is outside the way conflict of interest is normally understood. Because you used to work for someone that might benefit from your paper, you now have a conflict of interest? This makes no sense.

Finally, there is the weird idea that because something is “possible” — Mattias Rath is “possibly” Rasnick’s current employer — it deserves a misconduct investigation. It’s possible that a flying saucer will land on the White House lawn tomorrow.

In spite of all this, UC Berkeley administrators allowed themselves to be used to punish dissent.

Academic Horror Story (UC Berkeley – 2)

Peter Duesberg, a professor at UC Berkeley, has been accused of misconduct for writing a paper espousing an unpopular idea (that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS) — and the university administration is taking this seriously! Here is the letter Duesberg received.

Peter Duesberg accused of misconduct

This is major-league harassment, similar to the human-subjects complaint against Michael Bailey. And it’s Berkeley’s second Academic Horror Story. Previously, Berkeley administrators carefully delayed an experimental subject from learning she had a big lump in her brain.

MoreYou can be as nasty as you like” (John Cleese on extremism, via Marginal Revolution).

Academic Horror Story (Harvard University)

Are the heads of large companies worse than the rest of us? Aaron Swartz said as much when, in a discussion of Ken Auletta’s Googled, he called them “sociopaths”. Nicholson Baker seemed to have had similar thoughts when he said about the same book that “what Auletta mainly does is talk shop with C.E.O.’s, and that is the great strength of the book.”

Lawrence Summers, now in the Obama administration, was head of Harvard University, one of the world’s most powerful companies, from 2001 to 2006. Everyone knows about Summers’ repeated tendency to do the incredibly-inappropriate thing. A  generous interpretation of those incidents is that Summers had lived a sheltered life. I believe they were signs of something much worse — signs of pathology — based on what he did to one of Harvard’s best employees:

Back in 2002, a new employee of Harvard University’s endowment manager named Iris Mack wrote a letter to the school’s president, Lawrence Summers, that would ultimately get her fired.

In the letter, dated May 12 of that year, Mack told Summers that she was “deeply troubled and surprised” by things she had seen in her new job as a quantitative analyst at Harvard Management Co.

She would go on to say, in later e-mails and conversations, that she felt the endowment was taking on too much risk in derivatives investments, and that she suspected some of her colleagues were engaging in insider trading, according to a separate letter written by her lawyer that summarized the correspondence.

On July 2 Mack was fired. But six years later, the kinds of investments she allegedly warned about did blow up on Harvard. The endowment plunged 22 percent last summer, in part due to the collapse of the credit markets. . . .

Mack, who holds a doctorate in mathematics from Harvard, had been with Harvard Management for just four months when she approached Summers. She asked him to keep her communications confidential, or risk making her life “a living hell.”

But on July 1, Mack was called into a meeting by her boss, Jack Meyer, then the head of Harvard Management.

The next day Meyer fired her, according to the letter from her attorney, Jonathan Margolis, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. Meyer told Mack that she was fired for making “baseless allegations against HMC to individuals outside of HMC,” according to the Margolis letter.

Mack writes to Summers, alerting him to behavior by her co-workers that she believed could (and eventually did) have a very bad effect on Harvard. Fearing loss of her job, she asks him to keep her warning confidential. Summers fails to honor her request. What distinguishes this particular horrible behavior from more conventional examples of horrible behavior by incredibly powerful people is that Summers’ action did him no good. He didn’t backstab Mack to get to the top. He was at the top. He didn’t exploit Mack. He didn’t cheat Mack. This is coming across a courageous decent far-seeing person, much less powerful than you, who is trying to help you and all the people in your care  . . . and giving that person a good hard kick. For no reason. There is something very wrong with Lawrence Summers.

Frontline’s recent show The Warning tells how Brooksley Born, when she was head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (1996-1999), did her best to protect the rest of us from exactly what Mack warned about. Summers told her, according to a third party, “you’re going to cause the worst financial crisis since the end of World War II. I have 13 bankers in my office that have informed me of this. Stop. Right away.”

Academic Horror Story (Stanford University)

From the Washington Post:

At the open house, a STEP [Stanford Teacher Education Program] instructor asked [Michelle Kerr] if she planned to accept the offer of admission [to Stanford’s School of Education]. Anyone else would have said yes. But Kerr, who calls herself “fatally truthful,” said the tuition would be difficult to afford and admitted she was philosophically out of sync with the program. . . .

[Professor of Education Rachel Lotan, the director of STEP,] called Kerr in for a 45-minute session on her doubts about the STEP policy orientation. Wouldn’t she be more comfortable elsewhere? Even when university ombudsman David Arnot Rasch assured Kerr the offer of admission was binding, Lotan couldn’t let it go. According to Kerr, Lotan looked for legal grounds to keep Kerr out, something Kerr said she discovered when another official mistakenly sent her an email that was meant just for Lotan.

“I really can’t believe this response,” the official said of Kerr’s decision to accept admission and decline another meeting with Lotan. “Are you forwarding her response to the lawyer?”

Kerr called Lotan “a ruthless political animal who believes she was protecting her program from enemy infiltration.” During a second meeting with Kerr, Lotan said that she asked a lawyer about the possibility of rescinding Kerr’s admission. The lawyer had told her that was untenable. “Unfortunately,” said Lotan.

After Kerr became a student at Stanford, Lotan tried to get her in trouble at her internship school. In an official letter to Kerr, Lotan complained “you raised your voice.”

More about this.

Academic Horror Story (Reed College)

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Reed College, my alma mater, gets some very bad publicity. An extremely smart student named Chris Langan chose Reed over the University of Chicago, which thirty years later he calls “a huge mistake.” While he was at Reed, his mom failed to fill out a form to renew his scholarship. Here’s what Langan told Gladwell:

At some point, it came to my attention that my scholarship had not been renewed. So I went to the office to ask why, and they told me, Well, no one sent us the financial statement, and we allocated all the scholarship money and it’s all gone, so I’m afraid you don’t have a scholarship anymore. That was the style of the place. They simply didn’t care. They didn’t give a shit about their students. There was no counseling, mo mentoring, nothing.

Losing his scholarship did Langan enormous damage. He never finished college. According to Gladwell, Langan is wrong.

Langan talks about dealing with Reed . . . as if [it] were some kind of vast and unyielding government bureaucracy. But colleges, particularly small liberal arts colleges like Reed, tend not to be rigid bureaucracies. [No examples given.] . . . Would [the physicist Robert] Oppenheimer [supposedly more persuasive than Langan] have lost his scholarship at Reed? . . . Of course not.

That is the myth of the small liberal arts college, yes. But how true is the myth — at least in the case of Reed?

About seven years ago, I returned to Reed to give a talk. I had some spare time so I decided to visit Reed’s best-known course, a survey of Western Civilization that is required of all freshman and sophomores. I hadn’t had to take it because I entered Reed as a junior. I wondered what it was about. I found it. The large lecture hall was almost empty. Maybe there were 15 students; the enrollment must have been about 400. A young professor was giving a staggeringly boring lecture about some Greek classic.

Later I asked a Reed student why attendance was so low. She said that in the very beginning, fall semester (it was now spring semester), attendance was high but the students quickly realized the lectures weren’t helpful and stopped coming. The lecturer, I realized, didn’t care about the students. He didn’t have tenure and was trying to impress an older professor I’d seen in the audience who might influence whether he got tenure.

I’ve told Reed professors this story. They did not explain why a required course, really the required course, supposedly the centerpiece of a Reed education, was/is so poorly taught.

I think Langan’s story and the Western Civ story are two examples of how most colleges, including small liberal arts colleges, are not run for the benefit of students. I imagine the Reed professors I spoke to understood this; but it was unspeakable. I think the result is a power-law distribution of damage: A large fraction of students suffer small bad things (such as a lecture that’s a waste of time and tuition) and a small fraction of students (such as Langan) suffer nightmarishly-bad treatment.

For Whom Do Colleges Exist?

The !Golden Rule and Reed College.

Academic Horror Story (Virginia Tech)

In an undergraduate poetry class, Joe Newbury writes,

The first assignment [was] to write a one-page description of our influences and what they meant to us. I submitted a tongue-in-cheek, but graphic and flamboyantly described list: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, [and] a woman I’d slept with who had a giant mole on her rear end.

After this, his teachers forwarded all his work to the university administration, without telling him (and later denying it). Somehow this forwarded work showed he was dangerous. Eventually a cop told him,

“I believe you are a threat to yourself and to the people around you. If the University is not going to do anything about it, I will.’ She then announced that she was contacting Social Services to have my daughter taken away.

Because of something he wrote in poetry class.

Academic Horror Story (Emory University)

From Claudia Adkison, Emory University dean, to Charles Nemeroff, Emory University professor of psychiatry, in a 2006 memo:

I have been grateful that the reporter was not sophisticated enough to ask all the right questions.

Grateful. She was grateful. Ugh. Double ugh. Professor Nemeroff, you’ll recall, took vast sums of money to advocate the prescription of dangerous drugs to millions of people and hid this fact, even after several warnings. Dean Adkison was grateful, let me repeat, that a reporter didn’t ask “all the right questions” to expose this.

This is why New York Times reporter John Schwartz’s lack of understanding matters.

Human Subjects Research at Drexel University

I am visiting Philadelphia. Yesterday I learned that if you want to do human subjects research at Drexel University you must:

1. Include indemnification language in the consent form. The subject must promise to not sue Drexel no matter what happens. This is a bluff: You cannot sign away your ability to sue. Of course this requirement leaves subjects more vulnerable, not less, the usual purpose of consent forms. Shades of twisted skepticism.

2. Never contact subjects via email.

3. Never advertise your research on the web.

4. Never contact subjects who have been in a previous experiment.

The Drexel IRB (Institutional Review Board) will never approve any study that involves giving any drug to a non-patient. This means the very important studies by David Healy that involved giving Prozac to ordinary (non-depressed) people — some of whom became suicidal — wouldn’t be possible.

I suppose it’s no surprise that Drexel IRB members, such as literature professors, criticize research designs. In an NPR piece, a former IRB member boasted about the accomplishments of her membership, which included correcting faulty designs. At UC Berkeley a few years ago, I submitted to the animal research IRB a proposal to test with rats a key observation behind the Shangri-La Diet: Drinking sugar water caused me to lose weight. The proposal was turned down: It couldn’t possibly be true that sugar water can cause weight loss, said the IRB. Testing this idea was a waste of time.

IRB Watch. Earlier post about IRBs.

Ranjit Chandra and Milk Allergies

The following letter is from a Swedish professor who was president of the European Society of Pediatric Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Background about Ranjit Chandra.

Lerum, March 16th 2008

Dear Prof Roberts,

The correspondence/letters I have found or remembered are as follows.

  1. In 1993, The European Society of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, ESPACI) intended to publish a position paper on Cow’s milk allergy(1). In my position as secretary of ESPACI, I wrote that paper in collaboration with the authors listed. We had intense discussions on whether or not we should cite Prof Chandra, whom we all knew, but did not trust, mainly since we found his inclusion criteria and symptoms curious and not according to scientific knowledge at that time. We also opposed, since he had not performed any blinded oral provocation tests and several authors, e.g. Arne Host(2) have found that less than 50 % of those reporting symptoms at exposure had cow’s milk allergy at scheduled blinded oral provocation testing. I wrote a letter to the dean of the university of St John asking whether or not the rumors about Prof Chandra, that his nurse/secretary(?) had produced the results without the involvement of patients, were true. The reply was: ”Since the allegations against Prof. Chandra have not been proven or disproven, he is still in office”. I do not find that letter in my files.
  2. In 1997 Ranjit Chandra published a 5 yrs follow up study on his cow’s milk allergic children(3). This paper included DBPCFC. Then some of my colleagues drew the conclusion that everything was in order.
  3. In 1998 we published a second position paper together with the European Society on Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, ESPGAN, on cow’s milk allergy(4). At that time we accepted the Chandra paper, according to point 2.
  4. In 2003 we were writing up three papers later published in PAI(5-7). These publications were based on papers read during the ESPACI/Section on Pediatrics meeting in Padua, Italy on Dietary prevention of Allergy. Since at that time I was President of ESPACI and Chairman of the Section on Pediatrics within EAACI and organizer of the meeting, I wrote (in collaboration with the speakers) paper I and II and Arne Host and Susanne Halken paper III. Since I was still skeptical of the data by Chandra, I wrote a letter on Feb 15 2003 to the dean of St John’s (enclosed), without any response. The three papers were published in 2004.
  5. January 19 2006 I wrote once again to St John since I never got any response from the dean, correspondence enclosed.
  6. On February 16 2006 I got a response from St John from Prof Strawbridge and responded. On February 20 2006 I got another response and again responded to Prof Strawbridge, Dean of St John, enclosed.
  7. On Feb 24 I got a copy from German Friends and on March 3rd another one from Arne Host on the (enclosed) TV series in CBC on January 29th2006 and later

The rest you know much better than I do.

Actually, I don’t know whether my correspondence has any value on a website. But maybe you can use it for your documentation.

  1. Businco L, Dreborg S, Einarsson R, Giampietro PG, Host A, Keller KM, et al. Hydrolysed cow’s milk formulae. Allergenicity and use in treatment and prevention. An ESPACI position paper. European Society of Pediatric Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 1993 Aug;4(3):101-11.
  2. Host A. Cow’s milk protein allergy and intolerance in infancy. Some clinical, epidemiological and immunological aspects. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 1994;5(5 Suppl):1-36.
  3. Chandra RK. Five-year follow-up of high-risk infants with family history of allergy who were exclusively breast-fed or fed partial whey hydrolysate, soy, and conventional cow’s milk formulas. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr 1997 Apr;24(4):380-8.
  4. Host A, Koletzko B, Dreborg S, Muraro A, Wahn U, Aggett P, et al. Dietary products used in infants for treatment and prevention of food allergy. Joint Statement of the European Society for Paediatric Allergology and Clinical Immunology (ESPACI) Committee on Hypoallergenic Formulas and the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) Committee on Nutrition. Arch Dis Child 1999 Jul;81(1):80-4.
  5. Muraro A, Dreborg S, Halken S, Host A, Niggemann B, Aalberse R, et al. Dietary prevention of allergic diseases in infants and small children. Part III: Critical review of published peer-reviewed observational and interventional studies and final recommendations. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2004 Aug;15(4):291-307.
  6. Muraro A, Dreborg S, Haken S, Host A, Niggemann B, Aalberse R, et al. Dietary prevention of allergic diseases in infants and small children. Part II. Evaluation of methods in allergy prevention studies and sensitization markers. Definitions and diagnostic criteria of allergic diseases. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2004 Jun;15(3):196-205.
  7. Muraro A, Dreborg S, Halken S, Host A, Niggemann B, Aalberse R, et al. Dietary prevention of allergic diseases in infants and small children. Part I: immunologic background and criteria for hypoallergenicity. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2004 Apr;15(2):103-11.

Academic Horror Story (UC Berkeley)

Two years ago, a University of California Berkeley undergraduate was a subject in an MRI experiment at the Henry H. Wheeler, Jr. Brain Imaging Center on the UC Berkeley campus. She did it for the money: It paid $200 for two two-hour sessions, during which you lie motionless inside a large loud machine. During the first session, the persons monitoring the experiment could see that something was seriously wrong: The subject had a large mass in her brain. Clearly her life was at risk. But they didn’t tell her immediately what they had seen. (Later they claimed they “couldn’t” have told her, for legal reasons. A friend of hers who was present at the experiment was threatened with serious legal action if he told her.) Instead, they sought outside opinion about what the mass was and what to do about it. A few weeks later, they told her about it. “Sometimes unusual things show up on these scans” she was told. This was incorrect: Nothing like this had happened before at UC Berkeley.

In a way, the story has a happy ending. The large mass turned out to be benign (but at the time of the experiment they had no way of knowing that). It was removed. A year and a half after the operation, there are no signs of reoccurrence.

The experimenters not only (a) withheld what might have been life-saving information, (b) they persisted in this behavior after having time to think about it; and (c) they threatened someone who wanted to do the right thing. This is no momentary lapse in judgment. The experimenters — including the professor in charge and who knows what other powerful people at UC Berkeley — actively did the wrong thing. They carefully decided not to tell her info that might have saved her life.

More. After I wrote this post, I learned that the person in charge of the Wheeler Brain Imaging Center at the time was Professor Mark D’Esposito. By email I asked him if he disputed any of the facts in this post and if the Center had done anything to keep such a thing from happening again. He didn’t reply.

Academic Horror Story (Podesta State)

From Inside Higher Ed:

T. Hayden Barnes opposed his university’s plan to build two large parking garages with $30 million from students’ mandatory fees. So last spring, he did what any student activist would do: He posted fliers criticizing the plan, wrote mass e-mails to students, sent letters to administrators and wrote a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper. While that kind of campaign might be enough to annoy university officials, Barnes never thought it would get him expelled.

Rather than ignore him or set up a meeting with concerned students, Valdosta State University, in Georgia, informed Barnes, then a sophomore, that he had been “administratively withdrawn” effective May 7, 2007. In a letter apparently slipped under his dorm room door, Ronald Zaccari, the university’s president, wrote that he “present[ed] a clear and present danger to this campus” and referred to the “attached threatening document,” a printout of an image from an album on Barnes’s Facebook profile. The collage featured a picture of a parking garage, a photo of Zaccari, a bulldozer, the words “No Blood for Oil” and the title “S.A.V.E.-Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” a reference to a campus environmental group and Barnes’s contention that the president sought to make the structures part of his legacy at the university.

Academic Horror Story (Johns Hopkins University)

I previously blogged about ICU checklists. Atul Gawande has written another excellent article about them, this time an editorial in the New York Times:

A year ago, researchers at Johns Hopkins University published the results of a program that instituted in nearly every intensive care unit in Michigan a simple five-step checklist designed to prevent certain hospital infections. It reminds doctors to make sure, for example, that before putting large intravenous lines into patients, they actually wash their hands and don a sterile gown and gloves.

The results were stunning. Within three months, the rate of bloodstream infections from these I.V. lines fell by two-thirds. The average I.C.U. cut its infection rate from 4 percent to zero. Over 18 months, the program saved more than 1,500 lives and nearly $200 million.

Yet this past month, the Office for Human Research Protections shut the program down. The agency issued notice to the researchers and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association that, by introducing a checklist and tracking the results without written, informed consent from each patient and health-care provider, they had violated scientific ethics regulations. Johns Hopkins had to halt not only the program in Michigan but also its plans to extend it to hospitals in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

The government’s decision was bizarre and dangerous. But there was a certain blinkered logic to it, which went like this: A checklist is an alteration in medical care no less than an experimental drug is. . . . A checklist may require even more stringent oversight [than drug tests], the [OHRP] ruled, because the data gathered in testing it could put not only the patients but also the doctors at risk — by exposing how poorly some of them follow basic infection-prevention procedures. . . .

A large body of evidence gathered in recent years has revealed a profound failure by health-care professionals to follow basic steps proven to stop infection and other major complications. We now know that hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer serious complications or die as a result. It’s not for lack of effort. People in health care work long, hard hours. They are struggling, however, to provide increasingly complex care in the absence of effective systematization.

Excellent clinical care is no longer possible without doctors and nurses routinely using checklists and other organizational strategies and studying their results. There need to be as few barriers to such efforts as possible. Instead, the endeavor itself is treated as the danger. . . . Scientific research regulations had previously exempted efforts to improve medical quality and public health — because they hadn’t been scientific. Now that the work is becoming more systematic (and effective), the authorities have stepped in. And they’re in danger of putting ethics bureaucracy in the way of actual ethical medical care.

Not “in danger of” — they have put “ethics bureaucracy” ahead of patient safety. In a big way.