After Retraction of ‘Media Policy,’ Harvard Med School Updates Faculty Conflict Rules

August 31, 2010

Starting in January 2011, Harvard Medical School (HMS) will change how it regulates the nature and extent of medical industry ties among the school’s 11,017 faculty members, HMS officials announced in late July. The updated policies, the product of a sustained student-led movement, include a ban on faculty accepting personal gifts from medical companies and a requirement to disclose commercial payments of more than $5,000.

What’s notable about these changes, at least from FIRE’s vantage point, are not so much the details of the updated HMS conflict-of-interest policies. Rather, the interplay between student activists and HMS administratorsin particular, the seemingly hostile response to student interaction with off-campus mediadeserves a second look.

Pressure for reform began in earnest in 2005, when a group of first-year HMS students found that their professor held a board position on a company whose products (and their benefits) were discussed in class. That the professor’s stake in the product was not disclosedand that this did not violate formal HMS policiesled these students, along with like-minded faculty, to organize and advocate for stricter conflict-of-interest rules, The New York Times reported.

As the movement progressed and HMS established a 19-member committee to review the existing conflict-of-interest policies, national media took notice. In March 2009, the Times spotlighted not only the efforts to augment the policies, but also a pharmaceutical company employee photographing HMS student protesters and the resulting scrutiny from federal lawmakers.

Shortly after the Times interviewed students, administrators enacted a rule that seemed to impose prior approval on all student contact with off-campus media. The policy read:

All interactions between students and the media should be coordinated with the Office of the Dean of Students and the Office of Public Affairs. This applies to situations in which students are contacted by the media as well as instances in which students may be seeking publicity about a student-related project or program.

As Adam noted in his previous coverage on The Torch, Dean for Medical Education Jules L. Dienstag, in an August 25, 2009, e-mail to HMS students and faculty, wrote that  "we are all responsible to uphold" such policies. Some students saw this as an attempt to silence their criticism.

There’s nothing quite like an attempted muzzlingor at least the appearance thereofto gain unwanted media attention, HMS administrators soon found out. When the Times inquired about the HMS media policy in September 2009, administrators quickly retreated, admitting that the wording was "problematic" and pledging to remove the policy from the student handbook. (The electronic version of the HMS student handbook is available only to enrolled students, according to the HMS Registrar’s Office. As a result, FIRE, as well as prospective HMS students, are unable to confirm that this policy has been removed.)

To FIRE Board of Directors Chairman Harvey Silverglate, the ill-advised HMS media policy is yet another example of Harvard’s "urge to ‘control the message’ and eliminate potential threats to the bottom line," as he wrote in the 2010 edition of the Boston Phoenix’s annual Campus Muzzle Awards. Harvey included this media policy as one in a series of university-wide decisions in the past year that furthered Harvard’s "corporatized" image.

FIRE recognizes that determining where to draw the line with industry involvement in academia is difficult, requiring a careful balance between preserving academic integrity on the one hand and encouraging valuable industry collaboration on the other. Nonetheless, when administrators attempt to limit student expression, it only distracts everyone from the difficult task at hand.

Schools:  Harvard University