Faculty urge UC Davis to apologize to disciplined professor

06/19/2012 12:00 AM

06/19/2012 7:40 AM

Professors at UC Davis are calling for the reprimand of the School of Medicine's top leadership and legal counsel who allegedly threatened to strip Professor Michael Wilkes of his title and resources for publicly criticizing a university-sponsored event.

In a June 8 meeting, the UC Davis Academic Senate unanimously passed a resolution that said administrators and the legal counsel ought to accept responsibility for errors in judgment, write apology letters to Wilkes and rescind their disciplinary actions. The senators also asked UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi to prevent academic freedom infringements.

Last week, UC Davis School of Medicine Dean Claire Pomeroy and Executive Associate Dean Frederick Meyers told The Bee it would be inappropriate to comment on personnel matters.

They called academic freedom fundamental to research. "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," they wrote in a prepared statement.

The clash stems from a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed that Wilkes co-authored in 2010 when UC Davis sponsored a men's health seminar. The seminar had a strong focus on prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, testing.

Wilkes and Jerome Hoffman, a UCLA and USC professor, questioned the medical school's promotion of the PSA test – one they deemed potentially harmful to men. The two also speculated that the School of Medicine was ignoring scientific evidence about PSA testing to bring in money for the school's Department of Urology.

"The role of a medical university should be first and foremost public health, and it should not be other things, like money," Hoffman said Friday. "We, as a public, need to demand from our universities that they not be primarily about making money and silencing critics."

Since the column ran, Wilkes and Hoffman's argument about PSA testing has gained momentum. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said in a final recommendation May 21 that there is "moderate or high certainty that the service has no benefit or that the harms outweigh the benefits."

Shortly after Wilkes' op-ed was published, he was threatened by the university with losing his position as instructor of record in the Doctoring program, along with the resources for his Hungarian student exchange, according to an Academic Senate report.

Wilkes, who who writes a biweekly column for The Bee titled "Inside Medicine," said he tried approaching administrators but was given a chilly reception.

"It's been an extremely unpleasant experience," he said Friday. "They've questioned my credentials and background, which had been unquestioned until the day of the article."

That's what led him to the university's Academic Senate, which launched a full investigation into Wilkes' brush with administrators.

"I had tried every other available option, and every door was closed in my face," Wilkes said.

Jonathan Eisen is a full professor at the university with appointments in both the College of Biological Sciences and the School of Medicine. He's been blogging and tweeting about Wilkes' case, though the two do not know each other, and said the argument about the medical school's role could be credible.

"It's not like he (Wilkes) was pulling this out of a hat. This is front and center debate about the interaction between medical schools and companies," Eisen said.

The consequences of Wilkes' case with Davis administrators could have crushing consequences if the leaders do not remedy their actions, Eisen said.

"If they don't make it clear that it's unacceptable, we won't be able to recruit faculty," Eisen said. "Who would choose this institution if we allow that kind of behavior to persist?"

Wilkes and Eisen said they're disappointed in the administration.

"If they were really interested in defending UC Davis' reputation, as they claim to be, why didn't they publicly write something about this? Why didn't they write something in the San Francisco Chronicle?" Eisen questioned. "It smells in every possible way of power and retribution."

Despite the threats, Wilkes still holds his role as a professor at the UC Davis School of Medicine and said he hopes to keep it. However, he said he's unsure if he'll be able to stay if administrators keep trying to redefine the School of Medicine's role.

"I love what the institution stands for," Wilkes said. "It's the greatest. I would like very much not to leave."

The next stop for the resolution is Ralph Hexter, executive vice chancellor and provost. He called the allegations "deeply troubling" in a June 8 statement and vowed to investigate the matter. Wilkes said he trusts that the provost will do so.


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