Professor who criticized prostate screening seminar did not suffer retaliation, says university

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 16 January 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f327
  1. Jeanne Lenzer
  1. 1New York

A medical school professor was not subjected to retaliation after he raised concerns about a university seminar promoting routine prostate cancer screening, an internal review has found.

Michael Wilkes, a former vice dean for medical education and now director of Global Health, a research and policy institute, and professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis, wrote about his concerns in an editorial published online in the San Francisco Chronicle on 30 September 2010, with Jerome R Hoffman, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.1

The editorial criticized a seminar at Davis promoting prostate cancer screening that was supported by Intuitive Surgical, manufacturer of the da Vinci robot used to perform prostatectomies.

After Wilkes raised his concerns he received an email from the executive associate dean at the medical school stating that Wilkes would not be invited to continue as instructor of record of a doctoring program at the medical school. This was followed by a 19 October letter from the university’s legal counsel claiming that the editorial was potentially “injurious to the university’s interests” and could result in a lawsuit for “defamation.”

Although the three member internal review team said that Wilkes did not suffer retaliation, it agreed that “a reasonable faculty member could interpret the letter as threatening.”2

The university claimed that the timing of the email sent to Wilkes was “purely coincidental.” However, an earlier investigation by a committee of the academic senate concluded that a number of “retaliatory statements” had been made to Wilkes.3 Gregory Pasternak, then chairman of the committee, told the BMJ that the current review “whitewashes” the issue of retaliation against Wilkes.

Wilkes told the BMJ, “I believe that the public outcry over this matter, and the actions of the academic Senate, had a great deal to do with preventing the university from going forward with punishments against me. For this I am of course personally grateful, but I also believe that this response was even more important because it takes a stand against behavior that threatens all of us—as well as the very existence of independent scientific thought and speech. At its core, this is a case about the increasing trend to misuse science to promote and hype medical care to enhance hospital profit while putting the public’s health at risk.”

Hoffman, coauthor of the editorial with Wilkes, told the BMJ, “The larger issues raised in this case are important. These include first and foremost the use of a university’s academic credibility to promote scientifically dubious (at best) profit making activities in the guise of education. Second, the telling fact that the university apparently couldn’t tolerate having one of its eminent professors question such profit driven promotion, no matter how knowledgeable and evidence based his comments nor how credible his concerns—not to mention how much their response attacked not merely Wilkes but also the supposedly sacrosanct principle of ‘academic freedom’ that most universities claim to honor.”

Hoffman added, “At the same time, the widespread defense of Professor Wilkes by colleagues throughout the world of academic medicine, as well as by so much of the public, is extraordinarily important, and the fact that it carried so much weight is (this current effort to push everything under the rug notwithstanding) equally gratifying.”

In a written statement released by the university, Ralph J Hexter, provost and executive vice chancellor at Davis, said, “No university communication should convey even the appearance of impropriety with regard to academic freedom.” He said that he will host a forum for a campus-wide discussion of the issue.4

The current chairman of the university’s academic senate, Bruno Nachtergaele, told the BMJ, “The main conclusion of the review panel is that they admit very clearly that the letter was inappropriate and could be interpreted as a threat and that this did endanger the academic freedom of Dr Wilkes, and they want to make sure this never happens again. The administration affirmed 100% its support for academic freedom.”

Nachtergaele said that the letter and review would be sent to the university’s committee on academic freedom and responsibility to evaluate whether the review panel’s response was adequate.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f327