Soon-to-be-ex-rector of top Belgium university blames coverage of misconduct case for ouster

May was quite a month for Rik Torfs, the rector of a prominent university in Belgium. On May 9, Torfs lost his re-election campaign for rector of KU Leuven by a slim margin—out of more than 2100 votes, he lost by a mere 48. And just 20 days later, on May 29, Torfs wrote his final column for the Flemish daily newspaper De Standaard  — whom he believes was at least partly to blame for his election loss.

Specifically, it was the paper’s reporting on the university hospital’s (UZ Leuven) investigation into pediatric oncologist Stefaan Van Gool, which came just months before the election, that Torfs said he believes may have led to his ouster:

I think [the coverage of the Van Gool case in De Standaard] certainly played a part in why I wasn’t re-elected at the university’s rector. The paper covered the case for almost a full week, and it was front page news.

The Van Gool case made headlines in March, after De Standaard brought to light that UZ Leuven had investigated the pediatric oncologist’s research practices several years ago and uncovered a range of ethical violations (which we also wrote about in April). More specifically, the investigative committee found that, in some cases, Van Gool had conducted clinical trials without first receiving ethical approvals and informed consent, and may have misled patients and their families about the risks and benefits of his experimental cancer vaccine.

Torfs told us that he believes “we did everything that was legally and ethically required in this case:”

The person was fired. All public authorities required were informed, the journals where he published were informed, and ultimately all the patients involved in the debated studies were also informed. The paper wanted to make the case public, but I believe that when you fire an employee, you don’t have to put it in the press. The complaint dealt with research practices and studies. It remains our policy not to ruin the lives of people beyond what has already been ruined.

Torfs added:

Public disgrace is something that is highly stimulating and has become more common in the past 10 to 20 years. I think people who make mistakes and are punished for them still have dignity. Being fired doesn’t mean your life should be over.

Indeed, Van Gool’s career didn’t end after he left — for more than a decade, Van Gool has been developing and studying a vaccine to treat various cancers; after September 2015, he continued that work at a private clinic in Germany. Today, patients from all around the world travel to his private clinic and pay tens of thousands of dollars for the treatment.

Maxie Eckert, the journalist at De Standaard who helped break the story, told us:

I worked on this dossier for one year and we could not publish it sooner, and in any case (even if we had published the dossier half a year before the elections or months after the elections) some people would see a link with the elections.

Still, Torfs said that he disagreed with how De Standaard covered the case and decided to step down as a columnist after 14 years:

I wrote in my last column [for De Standaard] that I couldn’t continue any more writing for the paper because we had different opinions on ethics. In my eyes, transparency doesn’t include bringing things to the press unless it is public data. In this case, there were no medical mistakes made so Van Gool was not suspended by a commission of medical professionals. I believe what happened to him was sufficient, but De Standaard said this should be reported publicly. 

Torfs added, “that was my motivation for resigning from the paper.”

Torfs told us that he recently became a columnist for Het Laatse Nieuws, a newspaper in Belgium.

Torfs’s opponent, Luc Sels, dean of the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at KU Leuven, who will become the rector of KU Leuven on August 1, did not bring up the Van Gool case in his campaign.

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8 thoughts on “Soon-to-be-ex-rector of top Belgium university blames coverage of misconduct case for ouster”

  1. I’m not sympathetic to the rector’s nor the journalist’s arguments. If “transparency” is the preferred policy for conducting business, why interject limitations based on possible adverse consequences for perpetrators of research misconduct? Besides, the rector Rik Torf’s and the reporter’s judgments are subjective. People in leadership positions conduct a lot of business out of public view . . . and the record shows, I think, more resulting harm than good. The job of investigative reporters is to disclose what they have learned about the behaviors of individuals and organizations.

  2. The rector does have a point. I am greatly familiar with how rector elections at his university happen and with how the media covered the case, as well as with the influence of this particular newspaper on readers (and many electors of the university do read it), and I must admit that the rector is probably right.

  3. The rector’s argument is reasonable… and I assume reasonable people voted against him when he made the argument ahead of the election. Kind of how politics works. Also probably a reasonable decision to get out if the news business if one considers it unethical to publish newsworthy things, non-public information.

    1. He did not use the argument before the election. He was not in the news business. He simply had a column – more literary than journalistic. And he did not consider it unethical to publish newsworthy things – just found that this specific journal had violated privacy norms.

  4. Is it important that Rik Torfs lost out in an election because of the Van Gool case? Actually not. The most important question for RW watchers is whether the Van Gool case was indeed a case of (some) scientific misconduct and whether KU Leuven covered it up. Scientific transparency is not helped, when the alleged culprit looses or leaves his job, but continues elsewhere, while the head of the institution quotes privacy concerns. It is sad that a previously respected scientist, Van Gool, and a respected institute, KU Leuven, hide behind a non-disclosure agreement.

    1. PJTV,

      Precisely, non-disclosure agreements never serve the purposes of justice nor provide protection against future offenses. It is what makes possible multi-million dollar agreements between the Department of Justice and pharmaceutical companies to settle one violation of law before moving on to the next. Further, the history of clerical pedophilia throughout the world suggests that coverups simply enable perpetrators to continue a lifelong criminal career engulfing many more victims in the course of the years.

  5. The Cat asks “What does this case has to do with clerical pedophilia?” PJTV stated, “Scientific transparency is not helped, when the alleged culprit loses or leaves his job, but continues elsewhere, while the head of the institution quotes privacy concerns.”

    The organizational behavior is similar . . . getting rid of the culprit without making known the reason for severance–thus enabling potential repeat performance elsewhere.

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