Monday, March 10, 2014

In five days, the president of the University of Illinois is due to receive the report from the Vice President for Research that will evaluate the circumstances surrounding the use of the University's name and reputation in support of a private medical equipment supplier.  Recall that the VP was charged to "conduct a methodical assessment of policies, guidelines, procedures and practices, and where corrective changes are required we will take the appropriate action."

As I have noted:

Karisa King and Jodi Cohen at the Chicago Tribune have published an excellent story about how some doctors and admininstrators decided to use the name and reputation of the University of Illinois in support of a medical device company.  With access to internal emails, it becomes clear that an explicit decision was made to do so by very high-ranking officials:

Benedetti, the head of surgery, sought advice and permission from Jerry Bauman, interim vice president for health affairs, and Dr. Dimitri Azar, dean of the College of Medicine, according to an Oct. 23 email obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"On one side it would be a lot of free publicity for our program, on the other side we could be criticized to be included in an industry generated campaign," Benedetti wrote. The two responded separately that the visibility would be good for the program.

It will be revealing to see how the report deals with the question of how these people recklessly gave themselves an exemption from the specific language of the Campus Administrative Manual:

In general, the University cannot permit its image to be used in any commercial announcement, in a commercial or artistic production, including the World Wide Web or in any other context where endorsement of a product, organization, person, or cause is explicitly or implicitly conveyed.

There are two possibilities.  The one offered to date by the University's spokesperson is that participating in the ad was "a good faith effort" to promote expertise that has "demonstrably beneficial outcomes for patients," but the execution was perhaps not well thought-out.

With such a conclusion, the University would be admitting that its policies are a nullity.  As long as someone felt that the business interests of the hospital would be well-served, the rules could be abrogated.

The second possibility is that these three high administrative officials are found to have knowingly violated the University's rules but get a mild slap on the wrist or less.  In such a case, the University would likewise be admitting that its policies are a nullity: As long as you are high up enough in the organization, the rules need not be followed.

Well, there is a third possibility, that the University sends a message--through appropriate punishment--that the ethical rules under which it operates are real.  As I noted back in January:

Regular readers know that I tend to operate in a no-blame mode, i.e., be hard on the problem and soft on the people.  But when someone has violated the public trust in an institution to support the commercial goals of a private company, they have shown such poor judgment that consideration must be given to terminating their employment.

And how much more so now that we know that this equipment manufacturer has provided cash support and has other close relations with UIC faculty.

I'm guessing we won't see much in this report that indicates a serious look at the recent violations.  The University has invested too much in its robotic surgery program to take an action that might suggest that any aspect of that program is untoward, influenced by the equipment manufacturer, or unsupported by clinical evidence.  Likewise, the University has made it clear that the highest ranking official who rules on matters of potential conflicts of interest can have deep and close financial relationships with firms whose interests overlap UIC's.

So, what's it to be?  Whitewash #1 or whitewash #2 or a clean break from past practices?  The resolution will eventually reflect on the Board of Trustees, some members of which are especially known for their public service reputation.  Will they stand by and watch as the reputation of their University is again dragged through the mud?


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