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At UC Davis med school, a two-year cloud over faculty expression

UC Davis campus

(Credit: Chris Allan / Shutterstock)

Perhaps the University of California, Davis School of Medicine (SOM) just doesn't "get" free speech. It turns out that, at around the same time SOM was punishing medical student Curtis Allumbaugh on the basis of his protected emails, it was engaged in a campaign of intimidation against Michael Wilkes, an SOM faculty member. Wilkes' great sin? Speaking his mind in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. FIRE was successful in defending Allumbaugh's rights and has written to UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi asking her to stand up for Wilkes' rights as well. But nearly two years after the intimidation began, and months after the UC Davis Academic Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility (CAFR) issued an investigative report concluding that UC Davis had gravely violated Wilkes' academic freedom rights—a report whose conclusions were unanimously accepted by the full Academic Senate—Wilkes' free speech remains in jeopardy.

Michael Wilkes has been on the UC Davis SOM faculty since 2001. In his time there he implemented SOM's four-year "Doctoring" program for which he was serving as Instructor of Record (IOR) in the 2010–2011 academic year. Wilkes is also a recognized expert on prostate cancer screening methods, having served as a principal investigator on studies funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In September 2010, Wilkes became concerned about a prostate cancer awareness and prevention seminar the UC Davis Health System was co-sponsoring along with the National Football League and the American Urological Association Foundation. Wilkes was concerned that the event would excessively promote a particular screening method, the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. On September 30, 2010, Wilkes, with co-author Jerome Hoffman, a professor at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, published a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, criticizing both the PSA test and UC Davis' sponsorship of the event. Wilkes and Hoffman are far from the only researchers and columnists who have been critical of the test. Among the test's critics is Richard Ablin, whose discovery of the PSA antigen led to the creation of the test.

What happened next? The CAFR report notes:

At 7:02 am on the same day the article appeared in print (9/30/10), the Executive Associate Dean wrote an email to the UCDMS Associate Dean for Curriculum and Competency Development with copies going to the Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Technologies and Alliances and Prof. Wilkes in which he stated that (a) Prof. Wilkes would not be invited to continue as doctoring Instructor Of Record (IOR) after the academic year and (b) resources to support Prof. Wilkes' Hungarian student exchange would be ceased after completing commitments to date. In a meeting with CAFR, the Executive Associate Dean acknowledged that he had read the San Francisco Chronicle article before he wrote this email.

(Emphasis added.) But the ordeal was far from over. On October 19, Wilkes received a letter from UC Davis Health System Counsel David Levine outlining a number of statements with which the university took issue. The letter ominously concluded:

The purpose of this letter is not to stifle legitimate public debate, academic freedom or policy advocacy about the role of PSA screening or broader issues—far from it. I am simply pointing out that there are numerous errors of fact in your article, that they were injurious to the University interests and reputation and thus potentially actionable under the law of defamation.

Did UC Davis take seriously the idea of pursuing a defamation suit against Wilkes or was it just hoping to get Wilkes to pipe down? Evidence points to the latter. Why? Because, as the CAFR report notes, UC Davis didn't feel the need to send the same letter to Professor Hoffman or to the Chronicle. If you're really considering a defamation suit, you don't leave a deep-pockets big city newspaper off the hook and only go after one college professor.

I'll happily give all the money in my pockets to any professor who reads a letter like this and doesn't feel a blast of cold air over his or her free speech and academic freedom rights. UC Davis, though, didn't see it this way, implausibly denying that the letter constituted any kind of threat at all. CAFR's investigation noted the health system counsel's defense:

[T]he Health System Counsel "letter in no way proposes or imposes disciplinary sanctions against Dr. Wilkes,["] ... "Publicly broadcast false statements that injure the University's interests and reputations are potentially actionable as a tort. Such a statement is a fact. It is not a threat and it is not a sanction." ... and ... "The administrative action elected in this case was simply to provide information to Dr. Wilkes regarding the false information in his article and the potential legal exposure for broadcasting false information that is injurious to reputation...."

CAFR was not convinced. It concluded that Wilkes' academic freedom had been violated, stating that the timing of the events was "highly suspect beyond any reasonable doubt." The full academic senate endorsed CAFR's May 18, 2012, report and on June 8 passed a resolution, by a vote of 52-0, calling for UC Davis to accept responsibility for its violations of Wilkes' academic freedom, apologize to Wilkes, and formally withdraw all retaliatory threats against him. (UC Davis did not follow through on any of its promised discipline for Wilkes, which also included taking his office space. Instead, the possibility of discipline has hung ominously over Wilkes for nearly two years.)

This 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. As our letter made clear:

The chilling effect on Wilkes' speech has been profound, as it is for all UC Davis faculty members who might otherwise speak their consciences, and risk courting controversy, when they feel their expertise can contribute positively to debate on matters of public concern.

With it now being nearly two years that Wilkes' academic freedom rights—and those of all UC Davis professors—have been in jeopardy, we hope that UC Davis will come back with some honest answers—and soon.

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