Using a "Professionalism" Initiative as a Speech Code to Punish Students' Criticisms of Administrative Authority?

The original impetus to set up Health Care Renewal was increasing evidence of external threats to physicians' professional values.  So it seemed to me that renewed interest in addressing professionalism in academic medicine might lead to more attention to these threats, and perhaps even real challenges to them. 

Instead, most academic professionalism initiatives seem to have steered away from this contentious area.  Worse, at times the academic medical concept of professionalism has been turned on its head. 

A Dispute Among Students at University of California - Davis

A recent post in the Torch blog from our friends at FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) provided a graphic example.  The case involved an apparently trivial dispute among two medical students:
[University of California - Davis medical student Curtis] Allumbaugh's ordeal began after he emailed the 'med2014' mailing list (or 'listserv') on July 19, 2010, regarding a party he was organizing. The listserv was widely used for a variety of non-academic purposes. Allumbaugh's email provided the address of the party, detailed the available space, and listed the variety of alcohol that would be available at the party. The email noted that others had signed up to bring snacks and mentioned that some things were still lacking for the party, such as music, fruit juice, and beer. Prior to Allumbaugh's message, others had sent similar emails using the same listserv about their own parties, such as a 'kegger' one student called 'CAMP MED.'

On July 20, 2010, a second-year student emailed Allumbaugh, notifying him that she had 'been placed on the class of 2014's listserve' and had monitored the class email. She criticized Allumbaugh's email for placing 'a heavy emphasis on alcohol.' In response, Allumbaugh emailed her directly on July 21, calling her a 'busy body' and telling her, 'You should really just mind your own business and let our class be.'

Note that the second-year student's email (available here) carried a suggestion that she had some sort of authority to monitor the extra-curricular actions of first year students as manifested on the list server, and perhaps even punish them for perceived misconduct:
I can tell you that as MS2s, we work and play hard, but we do it responsibly and always in the forefront of our minds we remember what image we are portraying in public and through the messages we send. I'd hate to see any one of you 2014ers get into any trouble right before you start an amazing period of your life.

Note that the exchange between the two students did not occur in an academic or clinical setting, and it was never clear why the second year student was "placed on" the list server, or why she should have any authority over the Allumbaugh. .

The School Administration Invokes "Professionalism"

The medical school saw fit to cast Allumbaugh's actions as violations of the school's standards of professionalism:
As a result of this email exchange, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Graduate Medical Education James Nuovo sent Allumbaugh a letter on September 14, 2010, citing him for 'failing to demonstrate the highest standards of civility and decency to all' and 'failing to demonstrate courtesy, sensitivity and respect.' On November 3, 2010, Allumbaugh received a letter from the SOM Committee on Student Progress, punishing him with academic probation for the rest of his time in medical school and requiring him to undergo a psychological assessment to determine whether he was 'fit' to continue in medical school.

Finally, on November 19, 2010, SOM changed its rules to force all medical students to abide by the Principles of Community or else face academic probation.

The result was a series of interventions by FIRE:
In response, FIRE wrote UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi on August 3, 2011, noting that enforcing professional standards in truly professional settings differs greatly from enforcing workplace standards in other settings such as private conversations. FIRE also noted that it is blatantly unconstitutional to police student speech under the UC Davis Principles of Community because such a 'civility' policy violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech when it is given disciplinary force.

When that letter had no effect, it took threats of litigation for the medical school to suspend Allumbaugh's punishment more than one year after it began:
SOM Associate Dean of Curriculum and Competency Development Mark Servis replied to FIRE on August 10, 2011, defending the policy. FIRE responded on November 23, 2011, reminding Katehi that 'violating well-established law regarding the First Amendment rights of students at public universities leaves you at risk of losing qualified immunity, thereby opening you and other administrators to personal liability' for the deprivation of students' First Amendment rights. Servis again defended the policy in a reply on December 5, 2011.

Finally, on February 16, 2012, the Committee on Student Progress notified Allumbaugh that his probation had been dropped, but persisted in requiring him to adhere to the Principles of Community.
Note that Associate Dean Servis' letter stated that the email sent to Allumbaugh by the second year student was "a genuine suggestion of concern and an offer of albeit unsolicited friendly advice."  Thus, Servis seemed unaware that it could have been interpreted as an assertion of authority and a threat of punishment ("I'd hate to see any one of you 2014ers get into any trouble.")

Dean Servis also defended the use of probation to punish a student for failing to "work effectively with classmates." Yet the dispute that had nothing to do with (academic or clinical) work, and only involved a single student from another class.  Why that student was not equally to blame was not clear, unless it was because she had been granted special authority by the administration to monitor the actions of less senior students.  The implication appears to be that the punishment was in defense of a student who had been granted special authority by the administration, and hence was ultimately in defense of the administration's power. 


In this case, the medical school's professionalism policy seemed to be used by the administration primarily to control students' speech outside of the academic and clinical setting. Furthermore, the student's main offense seemed to be failure to kowtow sufficiently to another student who by implication had been given some sort of authority by the administration.  What the two students' dispute had to with professionalism is not  apparent.

On one hand, this seems like a case in which a speech code was mainly used to defend administrators from criticism and challenge.

On the other hand, this speech code was cloaked in the mantle of professionalism.  So this case seems to be an example of a professionalism initiative used as an excuse for the leadership to maintain its power.

It is beyond ironic that while this was going on, the University of California - Davis, and its Chancellor Linda Katehi were becoming briefly infamous for another effort, a more violent one, by the administration to prevent criticism and challenge. Chancellor Katehi had authorized university police to "clear" student demonstrators from an "occupation" of the campus which was protesting, among other things, rising tuition and economic inequality, and in doing so, the police used pepper spray on unarmed students (see this post.)

There are a lot bigger threats to physicians' and other health care professionals' professionalism than medical students' sarcasm or even rudeness in disputes about alcohol served at off-hours parties. Since many of these threats also generate personal benefits to academic leadership, it may not be much of a surprise that they have received little attention.  (See the list of threats appended below.  Note that we have discussed two of these threats in the specific context of the University of California - Davis.  Here we noted that Chancellor Katehi seemed to be re-imagining her medical school as a biotechnology company.  Here we noted that Chancellor Katehi was also on the board of a company with a medical education and communication company subsidiary.)

However, while they remain unaddressed, I submit that using "professionalism" to cloak increased social control of students to prevent them from looking too closely at what academic administrators are doing will eventually backfire. 

ADDENDUM: List of Threats to Professionalism

Instead, to really uphold professionalism, we need to defend it from its real threats, as listed in my 2010 post:

  • Abandonment of traditional prohibitions of the commercial practice of medicine - In the US, a Supreme Court decision was interpreted to mean that medical societies could no longer regulate the ethics of their members.  Until 1980, the US American Medical Association had  ruled that the practice of medicine should not be "commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade."  After then, it ceased trying to maintain this prohibition.  The result was increasing, now rampant commercialization.  See posts  here and here.
  • Making money takes precedence over education -  A recent survey showing that more than half the faculty at multiple US medical schools felt they were valued more for how much money they brought in than their teaching or patient care abilities (here), confirming previous anecdotal reports (see here). 
  • The medical school re-imagined as a biotechnology company -  In 2000, a Vice President of the American Association of Medical Colleges(1) wrote that research universities must respond to "societal demands that they become engines of economic development…."  Many universities now defend lax conflict of interest policies with similar arguments.  For more details, go here.
  • Faculty become employees of industry - For numerous examples of this and other kinds of conflicts of interest, go here.  A survey by Campbell et al suggested that approximately two-thirds of medical academics get significant payments from industry.(2)
  • Academics become "key opinion leaders" paid to market drugs and devices - Marketers regard "key opinion leaders" as salespeople who appear more credible because of their professional guise.  See anecdotal evidence here.  
  • Control of clinical research given to commercial sponsors - A study by Mello et al showed how universities' grant administrators are willing to sign contracts giving commercial sponsors control over key aspects of human research studies.(3)  See post here
  • Conflicts of interest allow manipulation and suppression of clinical research - Commercially sponsored research design, implementation, and dissemination are often manipulated to favor the sponsor's interests.  When such manipulation fails to produce favorable results, the results may simply be suppressed.
  • Academics take credit for articles written by commercially paid ghost-writers - Such ghost-writing is often part of organized stealth marketing campaigns. 
  • Whistle blowers are discouraged, or worse, and academic freedom is damaged.  Discussion of some examples of what may happen to whistle blowers is here.  The survey mentioned earlier (here) showed that about one-third of faculty fear they may be punished for speaking  out. 
  • Leadership of academic medical centers by businesspeople - Ill-informed management may result from leaders who have no background or training in actual health care. 
  • Leaders of teaching hospitals and universities become millionaires -  A recent example is here, and more may be found here.  Leaders of academic medical centers and the parent universities of medical schools often make more than $1 million a year in the US.  When such amounts are in play, executives may focus more on short-term measures that lead to even more pay than on upholding the mission. 
  • Medical school leaders become stewards (as members of boards of directors) of for-profit health care corporations - A recent example is here, and a summary of how we discovered this phenomenon in 2006 is here.   The conflict of interest is severe because directors of for-profit corporations are supposed to have unyielding loyalty to the interests of the corporation and its stockholders, although they are frequently accused of acting mainly as cronies of the top hired executives (see here and here).
  • Leaders of failed finance firms become stewards of academic medicine - We have found numerous examples, recently here, here, and here, of top executives and/or board members of the finance firms who helped bring on the global financial collapse also being trustees of medical schools, academic medical centers, or their parent universities.  Such "stewards" may bring to the academic environment the "greed is good" culture now pervasive in finance. 

1. Korn D. Conflicts of interest in biomedical research. JAMA 2000; 284: 2234-2237. Link here.
2. Campbell EG, Gruen RL, Mountford J et al. A national survey of physician–industry relationships. N Engl J Med 2007; 356:1742-1750. Llink here.
3. Mello MM, Clarridge BR, Studdert DM. Academic medical centers' standards for clinical-trial agreements with industry. N Engl J Med 2005; 352: 21.  Link here.
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