US bioethicist quits over censorship row at Northwestern University

Alice Dreger resigns her post after institution censored a risqué story in a medical journal

August 26, 2015
Northwestern University

A leading US bioethicist has resigned her professorship in protest at censorship by university administrators.

In an explosive resignation letter published on 24 August, Alice Dreger said that she could no longer work at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine because of its ongoing intervention in the faculty-produced journal Atrium, which she has guest edited.

Dr Dreger, who held a professorship in clinical medicine humanities and bioethics, said that she had been appalled to hear that Atrium’s Bad Girls-themed Winter 2014 edition, which she edited, had been withdrawn online at the behest of her dean Eric Neilson.

The edition had sparked controversy as it included a salacious account of a consensual sexual encounter between Syracuse University professor William J. Peace with a nurse in the 1970s, when he was an 18-year-old hospital patient.

Peace, who had been paralysed, claimed that the sexual favour from a nurse had eased his worries about his ability to perform sexually in future. The journal was reinstated online 18 months after it was removed.

“I could not believe my own dean would censor an article because it recounted a consensual blowjob between a nurse and a patient in 1978,” said Dreger in her resignation letter, calling the episode a “cosmic joke”.

She expressed her unease at the creation of what she called a “censorship committee” for Atrium, which had been set up to monitor future content of the journal.

“An institution in which the faculty are afraid to offend the dean is not an institution where I can in good conscience do my work,” wrote Dr Dreger in her letter of resignation addressed to Northwestern provost Daniel Linzer.

“Such an institution is not a ‘university,’ in the truest sense of that word,” she added.

Dr Dreger said that she could no longer do her work, particularly her research on academic freedom, given the ongoing censorship of Atrium, reported Torch, the publication produced by civil rights pressure group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Vague statements of commitment to the principle of academic freedom mean little when the institution’s apparent understanding of academic freedom in concrete circumstances means so little,” wrote Dr Dreger.

Dr Dreger thanked Northwestern for its support on other matters of academic freedom, but said that she felt like an “abject hypocrite” for staying silent on the issue of Atrium.

However, the culture of the institution had changed and she felt that she no longer worked at an institution that “fearlessly defends academic freedom…in the face of criticism, controversy and calls for censorship”.

Dr Dreger has posted a list of responses to frequently asked questions about her resignation on her personal website.

A spokesman for Northwestern University declined to comment in detail since it was “a personnel matter”. “We wish Professor Dreger well in her future endeavours,” he added.

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