Academic Freedom and the Corporate University

Michael McNabb has nicely laid out the current situation at the University of Minnesota with respect to corporatization with his excellent series: “University Inc.” and “University Inc, Part II.”

There are further consequences of corporatization that Jennifer Washburn has examined in her superb article in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors.

In summary, she writes:

“Commercial threats on campus have mounted—from industry control of research and corporate ghostwriting to restrictive sponsored-research agreements and intellectual property deals that place profits ahead of public health.”

These threats to academic freedom should cause us to reconsider the meaning of the phrase academic freedom and to understand that similar threats led to the formation of the AAUP in 1915. Powerful corporate interests and wealthy donors wielded undue influence over academic institutions. Today we struggle with renewed threats to academic freedom by commercial interests. Should universities pursue truth or profits?

Washburn uses two cases from Brown University to illustrate her points. David Kern, she writes, apparently had his career ruined by crossing Brown’s medical-school administration, which apparently tried to bully him into retracting a scientific abstract. (See Washburn for the sordid details.)

By contrast Washburn points out the treatment of the chairman of the department of psychiatry. (And there are some eerie similarities between this Brown story and that of our own University of Minnesota psychiatry department and Seroquel.)

As Washburn describes, Martin Keller brought in a large amount of money (more than $8.7-million) and was also the author of a puff piece, so-called Study 329, for the use of the anti-depressant Paxil in children. He then became famous for promoting the use of this drug “off label” in children and adolescents. Shortly, however, the wheels started coming off his wagon. Elliot Sptizer went after GSK—Paxil’s daddy—for “repeated and persistent fraud” based in part on analysis of Keller’s Study 329 raw data. GSK settled out of court.

Unfortunately for Keller, another group turned over the Paxil-for-children rock and looked again at the 320 data:

“Psychiatrist Jon Jureidini of the University of Adelaide in Australia published a second independent analysis of Study 329’s raw data, which found ‘no significant difference’ between Paxil and a sugar pill on any of the study’s eight prespecified outcome measure.”


“According to the Jureidini study, Keller and his co-authors also presented a distorted picture of Paxil’s safety by failing to report that eleven of the study’s patients taking Paxil had suffered serious adverse side effects (including eight cases of suicidal behavior and thinking).”

And of course there were ghostwriters in the sky:

“Patient litigation related to the Paxil case also led to the release of internal company documents suggesting that Keller had violated traditional standards of ‘academic authorship’ and ‘independent scholarship’ by working closely with a GSK-paid ghostwriter.”

And finally, the blow-off:

“In 2008, shortly after Jureidini’s study appeared, David Egilman, a clinical associate professor in community health at Brown University, sent an e-mail to David Kertzer, Brown’s provost, requesting that the university investigate Keller’s possible role in scientific misconduct. In 2009, The Brown Daily Herald, the student newspaper, published an editorial questioning Brown’s apparent reluctance to hold Keller accountable. … Brown’s Web site currently states that Martin Keller is a full professor who ‘made major research contributions to the understanding and treatment of mood disorders.’”

So what’s going on here? Kern wanted to publish a paper about a topic that disturbed Microfibres, Inc. and after Brown failed  to stop him, he was, as they say, let go. Keller brought in a lot of money. It at least appears that he may have violated what I hope are ethical-conduct standards at Brown. He is still there.

This is a pretty clear case of the conflict between the corporate university and academic freedom.

Dr. Howard Brody has picked up on the Washburn article and gives his views on the situation at Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma:

“The university seems to have taken little if any action against Keller, their chair of psychiatry who brings in huge research grants from industry, despite his serious COI and his role in suppressing unfavorable data about the antidepressant Paxil in kids. Kern, by contrast, blew the whistle on corporate wrongdoing in the defense of public health, and saw his academic career destroyed as a consequence.”

Dr. Brody also notes the implications for academic freedom:

“Washburn diagnoses [these incidents] as a serious misunderstanding of the tradition of ‘academic freedom.’ University profs have today fallen into the trap of thinking that this as a purely individual right. Not so, argues Washburn.”

The Brown Daily Herald, a student paper, has not been shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of university administration. The corporate affiliations of Brown members of the Governing Board as well as President Ruth Simmons membership on external boards such as Goldman Sachs are pointedly criticized in the article “Scandals Hound Corporation members.”

At Minnesota the membership of our former medical school dean on the Pepsi Cola board was also scandalous. Here Pepsi bought the prestige of having a medical school dean sitting on their corporate board. A company that makes products that rot children’s teeth? And this behavior was defended by the Academic Health Center VP.

Do we seek truth or cash?

Recently a tiny little protest was mounted against the Brown corporation. As the Herald wrote in its Valentine’s day report:

“A banner reading ‘Corporate Criminals Run Brown’ appeared on Wayland Arch facing Wriston Quadrangle Friday evening, a day before this weekend’s meeting of the Corporation. Less than 24 hours later, the banner had been taken down. The banner included a small ‘TM’ for ‘trademark’ beside the word ‘Brown.’”

Universities seem to be into branding. Our brand at Minnesota is Driven to Discover. To discover what? Truth? Apparently the only limitation at Minnesota is whether an action is legal, as demonstrated by the refusal of the Board of Regents to have an independent investigation of the Seroquel situation.  Such an investigation was requested by a large number of the University of Minnesota bioethics faculty.  As The Minnesota Daily recently pointed out to the Board of Regents in an editorial entitled “Regents Play Innocent”:

“In a letter released Monday, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents dismissed a request from eight bioethicists for an independent investigation of the case of Dan Markingson, who committed suicide after being enrolled in a University psychiatric research study.

“One of the leaders of that study, Stephen Olson, was Markingson’s doctor, but he also received consulting fees from the study’s sponsor, AstraZeneca. His obligation to the study and its corporate sponsor could have caused him to overlook his patient’s safety. The University made $327,000 from the study, $15,000 of which came from recruiting and retaining Markingson as a subject in the study, despite repeated requests by his mother for him to be released.

“The University seems to think that because it was not held liable in court for Markingson’s death, it did nothing wrong. This is false; it is a cynical excuse to keep corporate drug money flowing into the University.

“The regents’ decision fundamentally undermines our mission: Supposedly, the University is ‘dedicated to … the search for truth.’ But the letter makes it clear that corporate research cash is more important to the University than patient safety and transparency.

“Refusing to set up an independent investigation is a willfully ignorant attempt to sweep the Markingson case under the rug and damages the integrity of the entire University.”

Brown and Minnesota are quite different types of institutions, yet they both seem to have difficulties with the linkage between corporatization and the concept of academic freedom.

(A&A illustration derived from photos by Flickr users allyaubry and

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