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Committee rescinds informal invitation to staffer for Sen. Grassley

Published: Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Updated: Tuesday, March 31, 2009 09:03

The organizer for a Tufts conference on medical research ethics has recused himself from planning the event after his committee rescinded an informal invitation to a congressional staffer over a potential conflict of interest.

Professor Sheldon Krimsky decided to remove himself from the event after the university-wide Committee on Ethics backed away from its plan to invite Paul Thacker, an investigator for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), to speak at the May symposium.

The committee, which is sponsoring the symposium, made its decision after university officials, citing Grassley's investigation into a Tufts researcher, informed the body that they would not allow administrators to participate in the event should Thacker attend.

"I felt that my position as an organizer was compromised," Krimsky told the Daily. "[It] put me in a really awkward position, and I thought the best thing to do was to withdraw from organizing."

While Tufts officials maintain that the move was necessary in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, their decision has prompted doubts about the limits of administrators' freedom since the blanket ban would prevent even those administrators who wanted to participate from speaking at the symposium.

"It basically raises the question of, ‘What kind of academic freedom do the administrators have?'" Krimsky said. "In the faculty, a diversity of ideas is considered to be a plus; it may not be the case for administrators."

Krimsky, the co-chair of the ethics committee and a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, initially got a green light from fellow planners to pursue Thacker, but Grassley's announcement last month that he was investigating a Tufts researcher interrupted the process.

After learning about the university's position, the ethics committee voted to take back its informal arrangement with Thacker in favor of having administrators speak at the symposium.

Although Tufts officials forced the committee to choose between Thacker and administrators, Christine Fennelly, the director of public relations for Tufts' health sciences campuses, said that they never encouraged organizers to back away from their proposed invitation.

Instead, she said that officials merely informed organizers that the university perceived a conflict of interest in allowing administrators to participate alongside Thacker, given his proximity to the probe.

"The administration has to answer a letter from a high-ranking senator who is asking for information about one of our professors, so [to have administrators] engage with the senator or one of his aides wouldn't be prudent," Fennelly said. "You don't want to have the look of any impropriety."

Krimsky also acknowledged that the committee did not receive any pressure from the administration to reach a specific decision.

"Here at Tufts, I was assured that faculty could invite whoever they wanted, and it was simply a decision the administrators were making because they had gotten a letter of inquiry from Sen. Grassley's office," he said.

Still, he contested the notion that Thacker's appearance would be inappropriate. "I personally didn't think so," he said. "My feeling was that it wouldn't have been."

Even if Thacker attended and administrators had been instructed not to participate, faculty members would still have been allowed to take part in the symposium, a distinction that Krimsky called important.

"I guess it's a more questionable area because the administration has a more coherent objective they have to follow. They have to follow maybe a singular view … And there's some logic to that," he said.

Meanwhile, he noted that faculty members tend to have more leeway, and as such, he said that the administration's decision does not have any negative implications for professors' academic freedom.

"It's expected that faculty are going to be independent in thinking about things, and it's not expected that they would have a singular message about anything," he said, calling this level of independence unique to academia.

"You don't find it in government; you don't find it in industry; you don't even find it in independent, non-profit organizations."

Even so, Krimsky said that the administration's decision was, at least for him, somewhat personal, as it reminded him of an incident that occurred in the '70s when he was an untenured philosophy teacher at the University of South Florida.

While there, he wanted to bring in an activist for the gay liberation movement as part of his class on the new left. The university's refusal "showed me what administrators can do to prevent people from coming to campus, and it wasn't very pleasant," he said.

"I was told I would be fired on the spot if I brought in somebody," he said. "And as a fool, I [backed down]."

The focus of the Grassley's investigation that has spurred the current controversy is Helen Boucher, a researcher at Tufts Medical Center.

The probe into Boucher is likely part of Grassley's larger interest in potential conflicts of interest in the medical field, and is not the first time that his work has brought his focus to Walnut Hill.

Last semester, for example, Grassley showed interest in Tufts when he filed an inquiry about Marvin Konstam, a heart specialist at Tufts Medical Center.

Specifically, Grassley wanted to know if Konstam was violating a National Institutes of Health regulation that prohibits the institutes' full-time employees from receiving compensation for work with private companies.

Grassley's press office could not be reached for comment yesterday, but his spokesperson has expressed disappointment in the ethics committee's decision not to invite Thacker, arguing that the symposium is losing an important voice.

"These issues merit more discussion and less circling the wagons," Jill Kozeny told The Boston Globe. "It's too bad a reform perspective has been removed from the program."

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