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Slap: UC Davis Still Reeling from Attack on Doctor Who Questioned PSA Tests

Slap: UC Davis Still Reeling from Attack on Doctor Who Questioned PSA Tests

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Here’s a note for university deans, presidents, and chancellors to tape to their desks: think carefully about how, when, and why you discipline an academic.

The University of California-Davis has been hit with a barrage of criticism for how it has handled the case of Dr. Michael Wilkes.

In 2010, in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, Wilkes, a UC Davis internal medicine specialist, co-wrote a commentary with Jerome Hoffman, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Southern California, about prostate specific antigen (PSA) screening tests. The title summed it up: “PSA tests can cause more harm than good.”

Wilkes had been an outspoken critic of the tests, noting as early as 2002 in the Chronicle that PSA screening could have unintended consequences:

The trouble with screening for prostate cancer is that you can turn healthy men into ‘cancer victims.’ Many of these men would never, ever have known about their cancer. Diagnosing these men is extremely harmful to their health—all you’ve done is to create fear, without any evidence that treatment helps.

But this time he wasn’t just taking on PSAs, he was taking on UC Davis itself. The article was prompted by a UC Davis seminar that, as Wilkes and Hoffman wrote, “appears to be entirely about prostate cancer and in particular about the prostate specific antigen screening test.” Then they wrote:

We can't say why UC Davis offers this course that ignores scientific evidence, but we wonder whether it just might have to do with money. Testing for and treating PSA-identified cancer is a large part of the practice of many urologists so it may not be surprising that urology groups take a far more positive stance on the test than almost any other doctors. They also fund a pro-PSA lobby that now includes the National Football League.

Urology groups, indeed, took a far more positive stance and started writing UC Davis to complain. Kaustuv Basu at Inside Higher Ed broke a story earlier this month that explained what happened next:

At 7:02 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2010, scant hours after an op-ed he had written for the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing his university appeared in print, Michael Wilkes received an e-mail from an administrator at the University of California at Davis. Wilkes, a professor at the medical school, was told that he would no longer lead a program sequence that taught better patient care, and support for a Hungarian student exchange program he headed would be withdrawn.

Wilkes, no doubt stunned by the speed and audacity of the email, complained to a faculty committee. The UC Davis Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom spent more than a year researching the issue and then all 52 members voted unanimously to – in effect – censure the university for violating Wilkes’ rights. Jonathan Eisen, an evolutionary biology professor at UC Davis, posted the entire report from the committee on his Tree of Life blog.

Eisen’s blog is daily proof of the value of academic freedom. Were he to have to worry about losing a title or some of his academic responsibilities because of his writing, we all would lose the benefit of his insights, on full display here in Stop deifying "peer review" of journal publications.

As with the academic freedom committee, the criticism of UC Davis over the threats against Wilkes has been nearly unanimous, too. But some in the school leadership do not seem to fully understand how they erred.

The Merced Sun-Star summed it up best in an editorial: UC medical school goes out of bounds.

Incredibly, the medical school does not believe the letter threatened Wilkes with legal action. Notably, however, it did not ask the Chronicle for a correction or send a response letter, a sign that the aim was to intimidate Wilkes — and to deter would-be critics from voicing criticism. Executive Associate Dean Fred Mayer has issued assurances that the medical school has taken no action and "no action ... will be taken against him for exercising his rights to freely express his scholarly opinions." That's a start. The Academic Senate also wants Pomeroy and other medical school administrators to write letters of apology, formally rescind threats of actions and take steps to prevent future violations of academic freedom.

Cut this editorial out, too, academic leaders. Tape it to your desks. Think twice before hitting send on that angry email.


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Which is why what is happening at UVa is so disturbing. If the Board of Trustees (or Governors, etc) at a university is packed with ideologues, what happens to academic rigor?

Here in NC, the current legislature is refusing to consider appointments to the UNC Board of Governors. That means the next governor will get to appoint them (after November's election). Who will they be?

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