Questions about academic freedom in continued scrutiny of Seroquel trial suicide

Yesterday I saw journalists refer to the Wakefield autism/vaccine story as one that won’t go away.

In the Twin Cities – but with a following far beyond this metropolitan area – the case of the suicide of a young man named Dan Markingson while in a trial of Seroquel at the University of Minnesota is a story that will not go away either.

Now the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “In Request, Some U. of Minnesota Faculty Members See an Effort to Silence Critics of Research Ethics.” (subscription required for full text access)


At the prompting of the University of Minnesota’s general counsel, a committee of the University Senate has taken up the question of how faculty should collectively respond to “factually incorrect attacks” on particular faculty research.

Some faculty members say that direct appeal from the general counsel, Mark B. Rotenberg, is an attempt to quiet some faculty members’ criticism of drug trials conducted at the university, including one seven years ago in which a participant, Dan Markingson, committed suicide. Before they took up the general counsel’s question at a meeting this month, members of the university’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee were provided with copies of material related to that case, including a letter sent by eight bioethicists to the Board of Regents last fall, asking it to appoint a panel of outside experts to examine the ethical issues raised by the death.

Committee members discussed with two administrators who attended that meeting, on April 8, whether faculty members have a responsibility to respond to attacks on fellow faculty members, according to minutes from the meeting; failure to do so, one professor said, could be seen as parallel to “bullying.”

Carl Elliott, a professor in the university’s Center for Bioethics, has continued to draw attention to the Markingson case, including by writing the letter to the regents with seven other professors from the bioethics center requesting the inquiry. Legal and university authorities found no wrongdoing by those involved in the drug trials, the university said, and the eight professors’ request of the board was declined.

Last fall, Mr. Elliott wrote a piece for Mother Jones, an investigative-journalism magazine, about the perils of the university policies surrounding drug trials, focusing specifically on the Markingson case.

In an interview, Mr. Elliott said the general counsel’s actions are troubling. Instead of fostering an open discussion about research practices, Mr. Rotenberg, and by extension the university administration, is attempting to use the faculty senate as a “stalking horse” for intimidation and punitive action, Mr. Elliott said.

Mr. Rotenberg said Mr. Elliott is misunderstanding the situation. He and the university are not seeking to use the faculty senate to quiet criticism or to intimidate or punish anyone, he said.

He said he asked the faculty senate to discuss the issue of how to handle allegations professors make against one another because he thinks it is imperative that the faculty, and not just the administration, have a role to play in dealing with those matters. “The faculty, as a collective body, should take an interest in attacks on their members that serve to deter or chill controversial research, ” Mr. Rotenberg said in an interview.

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