Waiting Time for Justice at UC Davis Med School? Two Years, and Counting

By October 17, 2012

This summer, FIRE alerted Torch readers to the saga of Michael Wilkes, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. Wilkes faced retaliation at UC Davis after co-authoring an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle in which he criticized both a particular screening method used to detect prostate cancer (an area in which Wilkes has considerable expertise) and an event co-sponsored by UC Davis that he felt overly promoted the screening method. FIRE’s involvement with Wilkes actually didn’t begin until well after this travesty started—a travesty that is now entering its third year. 

Shortly following the publication of the editorial on September 30, 2010 (and by shortly I mean within hours), Wilkes was notified that his teaching responsibilities would be reduced and that funding would be cut off for an exchange program he helped administer. Wilkes also faced the prospect of losing office space, and a letter from the UC Davis Health System Counsel’s office notified him that he could potentially be liable for defamation on the basis of the article—though, notably, neither Wilkes’ co-author nor the San Francisco Chronicle received similar threats.  

Eventually, Wilkes’ case was investigated by the UC Davis Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility (CAFR), which found overwhelmingly that UC Davis had violated Wilkes’ academic freedom. CAFR’s findings were unanimously adopted by the full Academic Senate, which called on UC Davis to abandon its threats against Wilkes and apologize to the professor. 

Has it? No.  

Unfortunately, FIRE’s concerns with the case, which I articulated here a couple of months below, remain to this day: 

[CAFR's report] got the attention of UC Davis Provost Ralph Hexter, who stated that the conclusions of CAFR’s report were "deeply troubling" and that the university would investigate and take "appropriate actions." 

What these "appropriate actions" should be seems clear to FIRE—drop the punishments and threats of a defamation suit. But is it clear to UC Davis? In response to FIRE’s July 13, 2012, letter, Chancellor Katehi stated that UC Davis has assembled a group of "independent subject-matter experts" to investigate. What exactly does it need such a group to investigate, though? Is UC Davis interested in getting to the bottom of the truth or falsity of Wilkes’ statements? Is it looking for a vindication of the PSA test (an issue on which, obviously, FIRE takes no position)? Or is it going to seriously investigate the UC Davis administrators and lawyers who threatened Wilkes’ academic freedom? FIRE, and many others, are most anxiously waiting for an answer on the final question. 

Michael Wilkes’ free speech and academic freedom rights have already been under threat for two years. That’s two years too long. It’s long past time for UC Davis to take a firm stand for Wilkes’ right to free speech, and long past the time FIRE should be reminding a public university to respect the basic rights of its faculty.

Schools: University of California, Davis Cases: University of California, Davis: Retaliation Against Medical School Professor over Newspaper Column