by Lisa Black
Northwestern University leaders are defending themselves for the second time this year against claims that they undermined academic freedom after faculty in the Feinberg School of Medicine complained that a risque article was removed for months from a website for the bioethics journal Atrium.
The essay, called "Head Nurses," was written by Syracuse University visiting humanities professor William Peace, who recounted a sexual experience with a nurse after he was hospitalized in 1978 with paralysis. He wrote that the nurse had acted compassionately to help him during rehabilitation in "a lost part of medical history."
The article was published in the journal more than a year ago and distributed in paper form, but was removed from the website by the university because of fears that it would damage Northwestern's image, said Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics, and guest editor of the 2014 edition carrying the essay.
In May, the university allowed the article to be returned to the website after, Dreger said, she threatened to take her complaints about school censorship public.
But Dreger said that her department has halted Atrium's production because of a newly established "oversight committee" required to review and approve articles before they appear. University spokesman Alan Cubbage described that committee as "an editorial board of faculty members and others, as is customary for academic journals."
"My department decided not to participate in" the prior review process, said Dreger, who works for the university part time and recently published a book on academic freedom. "I have to worry about my own university pulling my work because they are afraid of upsetting someone."
Published about once a year since 2005, Atrium has always been "edgy," with topics that explore where medicine intersects with other disciplines, such as religion, literature and the law, she said. The "Head Nurses" essay appeared in an edition themed "Bad Girls" that included articles by other scholars on disability and sexuality.
Cubbage acknowledged that the nurse article had been removed from the journal's website but has since been reposted. He also pointed out that the article was printed and mailed to subscribers "as edited by its faculty editor."
Recently, Northwestern officials responded to an unrelated controversy involving academic freedom after two students filed complaints under the Title IX gender equality law because of an essay written by communications professor Laura Kipnis.
The university found no evidence of wrongdoing by Kipnis, who had criticized the university's ban on faculty-student sexual relations in an essay published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said that while students have increasingly protested at college campuses over controversial speakers or professors, the Northwestern incidents don't fit that pattern.
"If it was an alumni magazine or something sent to prospective students to get them to apply, that's different," said Stone, who criticized Northwestern in an article published online.
"But this magazine is edited by faculty as an academic journal," he said in an interview with the Tribune. "That is something where academic freedom applies full force. The idea that … someone in the institution thought it would be embarrassing or problematic, that is a real intrusion on academic freedom."
Dreger said she believes that the university's relationship with Northwestern Memorial HealthCare, which in 2013 purchased a large Northwestern University physicians group, contributed to the controversy over the "Head Nurses" article.
One of her colleagues, Kristi Kirschner, a physiatrist, resigned from her job as a clinical professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine last December. "The attack on Atrium was one of my primary reasons for doing so," she said.
Kirschner, whose job with Northwestern's Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program constituted only 10 percent of her salary, now is affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"I don't see these troubling events as unique to Northwestern," she added. "There is an inherent tension within academic medical centers between the missions of the hospital and the university, but recently the commercial interests of the hospital are dominant."
Cubbage denied that the acquisition by the health care system played a role in the decision to initially remove the nurse story from the website.
Kirschner described the "Head Nurses" essay as "provocative" but worthy of publication. "I hoped the article would spur further discussion on how the medical profession, and rehabilitation in particular, deals with sexuality and disability."
Controversy over the Atrium article and Kipnis essay have drawn national attention.
"The ability to explore controversial subjects lies at the heart of academic freedom," Peter Bonilla, a program director with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in a news release.
"Northwestern cannot promise 'full freedom in research and in the publication of the results' while limiting that freedom to protect its 'brand.' A university's brand should be the unfettered search for truth, not politically motivated censorship."
Dreger, when asked if there are limits to academic freedom, said that the articles must be factual and academically responsible.
"I understand (controversial topics) might make some people upset," she said. "That is sometimes what academics do in the course of their work."
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Charles L. Berman
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