Northwestern pulls bioethics publication with oral sex essay, reposts one year later

atrium-issue12Northwestern University has reposted a publication from the Medical Humanities & Bioethics Program at the Feinberg School of Medicine that included a controversial essay about oral sex, after it was pulled for more than a year.

The essay was included in an issue guest edited by faculty member Alice Dreger—who penned a post for us in March about the ways in which attacks on academic freedom have increased, during the time her own publication had been taken offline.

The essay, “Head Nurses,” presents the story of William Peace, who wrote that he received oral sex from a nurse after he became paralyzed at the age of 18:

That night forged a lifelong friendship with this woman, one that lasted until her death two years ago. Once in a blue moon, she or I made reference to that night, the night she reaffirmed my manhood and masculinity in a way I will forever appreciate.

The overall theme of the issue was “Bad Girls”, and featured essays on a range of topics, including childbirth and abortion. According to Inside Higher Ed, when the essay was published, Peace was the Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University.

Northwestern’s administration became concerned soon after the issue appeared, said Peace, who wrote about the incident on his blog:

Shortly after the “Bad Girls” issue was released, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Dean and Vice President of Medical Affairs Eric Neilson objected to the publication of my essay. Absurdly, my essay was characterized as “pornographic.”  In response to this criticism, Atrium’s editor-in-chief, Katie Watson, a faculty member in the Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program, decided to take the entire journal off line. She told Dreger that she would not allow just one issue to be singled out for “special” treatment.

Watson confirmed this in a statement posted on Peace’s website:

As you note, in my role as Editor and founder of Atrium, I refused to comply with an administrative desire to single out your essay. I did not agree that publishing it was a mistake and therefore refused to apologize, and I steadfastly defended your work and that of your guest editor. Instead of allowing your essay to be treated differently, I chose to temporarily take the entire Atrium back catalogue off-line until things could be sorted out. Your article was not the only topic on the table last summer— in a time of institutional change, complex interpersonal dynamics, and new fiscal austerity, Atrium’s future and several other large issues of great concern to our Program’s faculty and mission were also in question.

All issues of Atrium were pulled from the website in May, 2014, said Watson. Part of the issue, according to the Huffington Post, was the image the essay cast of the school and nursing profession:

Emails obtained by The Huffington Post also show administrators expressing concern that the article could threaten a “branding agreement” with the medical school and the hospital, and that it could suggest the hospital doesn’t value nurses or that it condones sexual relationships between patients health care workers.

After administrators raised concerns about the issue’s content, “Bad Girls” and all other Atrium issues were taken offline.

Dreger told Retraction Watch that she also believed that the school’s relationship with the hospital was likely a key factor:

Atrium hadn’t changed over the course of the years; it started in 2005 and it was always edgy, intense, smart, and filled with material you would not find anywhere else. (Our front covers have included a man with phocomelia — “flipper limbs’ — holding a gun, a deceased newborn baby with the grieving parents, etc., and the content could get pretty intense.) What changed was that just before the censorship, our medical school merged with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and the new brand — “Northwestern Medicine” —  took over. The “hospital brand” (“Northwestern Medicine”) was specifically named as the cause of concern about “Head Nurses.”

Watson told us that even though the issue was offline for a period, it remained accessible:

Over 3,000 hard copies of the Atrium issue in question went out in the mail, and it was up on our website for a period of time…when it was first published.

After our administration’s objection, the full issue was available on the guest editor’s personal website, and Atrium’s normal policy of sending the issue (like any back issue) to anyone who emailed asking for a PDF or a hard copy remained on our website and was honored.

The article was reinstated online in May, 2015 — one day after Dreger warned the dean’s office she was going to start publicizing what had happened. She told Retraction Watch:

Yes, they restored it the day after I said I was going public.

Bob Rowley, director of media relations at Northwestern, told Retraction Watch that Atrium was never retracted:

The 2014 issue of Atrium was never retracted. The issue was temporarily removed from a website archive, but it is not accurate to say that it was retracted. That issue, and all other issues of Atrium, are now back online.

In May, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to Neilson and Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, expressing concern over this incident and the university’s decision to evaluate any future content of the magazine:

Though Atrium’s past issues are currently free of censorship, FIRE has been informed that a new committee consisting in part of senior [Feinberg School of Medicine] administrators and external relations officials has been charged with evaluating the prospective content of the next issue—a significant departure from Atrium’s prior editorial practices, which did not include any administrative editorial involvement.

Dreger calls this the “censorship committee”:

The dean’s office did this after they said to pull “Head Nurses,” informing us that we would now be required to run all of the content of Atrium (including proposals that come in response to our calls for proposals on issue themes) by the committee and the committee would have final say on all of it. The committee — which we came to call the censorship committee — included dean’s office administrators and university relations (PR) people who would make sure the material only fit the “Northwestern Medicine” brand.

Another article in Huffington Post yesterday (which quotes our own Ivan Oransky) notes that this kind of oversight is unusual in academia:

“It’s unusual for the PR department of a university to have any oversight of a peer-reviewed journal edited by a faculty member at that university,” said Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the Retraction Watch blog and a professor in New York University’s journalism and medical schools.

A few peer-reviewed journals carry educational institutions’ names — such as The Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine and Mayo Clinic Proceedings. As far as we can tell, they both have subject matter experts on their editorial boards, and no PR folks.

Another author of one of the “Bad Girls” essays has resigned as a result of these events. Kristi Kirschner told Inside Higher Ed:

These events had a chilling effect, antithetical to the idea of the university. Universities thrive when there is academic freedom and vigorous debate. Hospitals and clinical care thrive when systems operate as well-oiled machines. One is about disruption and creativity, the other about conforming. The branding movement will undoubtedly favor the latter, in service of fund-raising and reputational scores.

The whole experience has been “surreal,” Dreger told us:

All in all, I waited 14 months through the censorship — a period of time that coincided with the final editing, fact-checking, lawyering, and proofing of Galileo’s Middle Finger, a book on academic freedom. That was surreal. I thought about quitting Northwestern and taking their name off the book, but so many wonderful administrators and colleagues at Northwestern had made the book possible, it was important to me that that support be recognized.

She added:

Part of me wants to laugh. Much of the work that went into Galileo Middle’s Finger was so crazy it felt almost fictional. To have this added on top of all that just at some level feels like my book writing me. And I’ve been joking to my friends for over a year that I might get fired over a blow job I didn’t even give.

But when I’m not laughing, I’m wondering if I will have a job past August 31. (That’s when my academic year ends, and I am on a 20% FTE one-year renewable appointment, and I have no idea if they will renew me.) I wonder if my program will be punished for my having gone public with this along with Kristi and Bill.

Dreger has even considered looking for a new job:

I’ve thought about putting up an ad on Craig’s List saying I’m looking for a new part-time relationship with a  university — a hotel room when I’m in the same city, some money, a willingness to appear in public with me, and most of all respect for my academic freedom in the morning. It would be interesting to see if anyone responded.

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5 thoughts on “Northwestern pulls bioethics publication with oral sex essay, reposts one year later”

  1. This episode very effectively underscores the fundamental difference between the academic culture of the university proper and the new brand of medical school/major hospital conglomerate that is emerging as the norm as medical schools have had to become financially self-sufficient (from their namesake universities). Whenever hospitals are involved, branding will always trump lofty ideals of academic freedom.

  2. If there is one thing that unites Americans, conservatives and liberals,
    then it is their fear of sexual pleasure, each in their own way.

  3. Could this explain why some Americans are so resistant to government health provision? You don’t get that kind of service under Medicare (Australia) or the National Health Service (UK)

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