The press covering the story of bioethicist Glenn McGee’s departure from the post of director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College is hungry for an ironic twist. For example, Scientific American titles its article “An Unethical Ethicist?” What more fitting fall than some self-appointed morality cop going down on account of his own immoral dealings?
Believe me, I’m familiar with the suspicions people seem to harbor that ethicists are, in fact, twice as naughty as other folks. But from the evidence laboriously assembled in the SciAm article, I’m just not buying the picture of McGee laughing maniacally while twirling his mustache and plotting all manner of evil. (To be fair, despite the headline, I don’t think the SciAm piece is arguing that McGee is a villain, either.) Rather, I’m inclined to think that he made a few bad calls, but that the most likely explanation for his departure is good old fashioned academic politics.
Let’s take a look at the facts as they’re laid out in the article:
[A] month after his abrupt departure, former colleagues are painting a complex portrait that suggests the ethicist’s own personal and professional relationships may have led to the institute’s undoing.
McGee remains a tenured professor at AMBI, and neither he nor college officials will discuss the circumstances surrounding his change in status. Former colleagues, however, say the institute began to unravel shortly after his arrival when Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., severed its longtime educational partnership with AMBI’s parent medical school and as disillusioned faculty–accusing the ethicist of everything from forgery to spreading insulting rumors–left.
Forgery is clearly a bad thing. Spreading malicious rumors isn’t a good thing, but there may be a gray area between making active efforts to defame someone and, say, sharing a candid view with someone who then shares it with someone else. It’s also not apparent what exactly is included in the “everything from” here. Are we talking falsification of data, or double-dipping chips at a university function?
McGee, a 40-year-old Texan with two iPhones, appeared to crave the spotlight. He counts himself lucky to have published his first book, The Human Cloning Debate, in 1998 just when scientists in Scotland announced they had cloned Dolly the sheep–and ethics experts were in hot demand to weigh in on the controversial procedure. “I believe that talking to the public is a good thing,” McGee says. “Are [some bioethicists] bothered by that? Of course, they are.”
I don’t think this has much to do will the alleged unethical behavior, but I must note that I am bewildered at the idea that a bioethicist ought not to talk to the public. Isn’t the public usually an interested party — at least, potentially — in many of the ethical decisions bioethicists analyze? Isn’t it better to have the actual interests and values of the people who might have to make choices about new reproductive technologies, end of life options, and the like brought to bear rather than leaving it all to the intuitions of professional ethicists?
Or was there something else bugging the other bioethicists about how McGee was engaging the public?
But according to interviews with a number of former colleagues, McGee also began ruffling feathers almost as soon as he set foot in Albany. Just months after his arrival, he was denounced by editors at the Albany Law Review after they learned that he had apparently forged the signatures of his three co-authors on forms for a paper that he had submitted for publication. The paper was about whether in vitro fertilization attracts parents who wish to genetically engineer their children. Peter Ubel, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says that he and Andrea Gurmankin, a former Penn graduate student once advised by McGee, told McGee that they did not feel the manuscript was worthy of publication. “There was a kernel of a good idea in there,” Ubel said during a recent interview, but “some terrible flaws in the survey data.”
McGee, however, ignored their objections: Without their knowledge, he signed their names as well as that of another author (Elizabeth Banger, now a U.S. Army lawyer) on forms granting the journal the right to print it. After it was published, Ubel demanded that the journal issue a correction. The publication eventually removed his and Gurmankin’s names from electronic versions and published a correction in the following issue. McGee says he believed that he had “proxy” to sign the other names, and both he and Ubel say the incident may have resulted from miscommunication.
Here, I’m inclined to think McGee messed up. If authorship is to mean anything, all the people listed as authors need to be able to stand up and take responsibility for the work published under their names. Requiring all the authors to sign off on the final version of a paper is one way to ensure that they can. As it looks like at least two of McGee’s coauthors weren’t ready to stand behind the version of the paper that was published, it’s clear that the gathering of the signatures would have been the occasion for a needed conversation among the collaborators here.
Submitting all the “signatures” — even if you think you have “proxy” — amounts to representing that the coauthors are all in substantial agreement, which they weren’t. It’s a misrepresentation, and it doesn’t take an ethicist to see that. Score one clear ethical misstep.
[S]ome of the accomplishments McGee cites on his 48-page curriculum vitae, on Web sites he manages, and in news reports are not quite what they appear at first glance. A press release issued by Albany Medical College announcing his March 2005 arrival notes that he had also just been “named chief of the Office of Bioethics for the New York State Department of Health,” a claim that McGee repeated during an interview last week. “When I moved to Albany,” he told ScientificAmerican.com, “I was named chief of bioethics by the Wadsworth Center” at the New York State health department.
But that’s not what the department remembers. “Dr. McGee is experiencing delusions of grandeur,” says Jeffrey Hammond, a state health department spokesperson. “Let’s set the record straight: McGee was a volunteer, not an employee. He gave himself the lofty title of chief of bioethics and as a volunteer was not compensated for his time.”
McGee said his relationship with the department soured after he gave numerous interviews during the controversial Schiavo case. He says that then New York State Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Dennis Whalen called and dressed him down after those interviews. “It was made clear to me,” he says, “that it had come down from the governor [Republican George Pataki] that I was to shut up.” McGee says he later drew from this experience in a column he wrote in a July 2006 issue of The Scientist, which was critical of governmental bioethics commissions. Hammond says that state health officials also “have no recollection of a meeting between him and then Deputy Commissioner Whalen.” If any message was conveyed following his media appearances during the Schiavo case, Hammond says, it would have been that volunteers and staff should not independently discuss or represent their views as state policy.
Here, the alleged crime is that McGee misrepresented the nature of his affiliation with the New York State health department.
Personally, I’m not convinced that whether someone is on the payroll is the clear mark of whether they are contributing something of value (or whether their services are valued by the organization). State agencies might well jump at the opportunity to draw on expertise without having to pay for it.
Also, there’s a possibility that there wasn’t a great deal of clarity in specifying McGee’s affiliation with the New York State health department — even that this affiliation was not clarified until certain New York State politicians thought it prudent to distance themselves from comments McGee made in interviews. From the facts presented in the article, it’s hard to know for sure if McGee was representing the affiliation as he understood it rather than knowingly puffing it up to look more substantial than it really was.
Among the other instances of resume puffery alleged, McGee represented himself as turning down a job at Emory that hadn’t officially been offered. By McGee’s account, this was a job that has not yet been offered in in writing. By the Emory provost’s account, the search committee hadn’t gotten to the decision between the finalists by the time McGee withdrew himself from consideration.
It appears that McGee was at least a finalist for this position. Possibly he was bursting with confidence that, if he did not withdraw his application, he would be the finalist who would emerge victorious. Was he actually lying? Or simply sloppy in his description of his decision to take himself out of that finalist pool?
[SUNY-Albany philosophy professor Bonnie] Steinbock believes that such misunderstandings may stem from McGee’s overeagerness and inflated self-image. “There have been times when McGee has insufficiently distinguished between what he intends to accomplish and what has actually happened,” she says. In fact, she adds that McGee had discussed his interest in getting her an adjunct professorship in the Albany Medical School’s ob-gyn department around 2005 and, much to Steinbock’s chagrin, that affiliation was soon listed on the Alden March Web site before the paperwork was properly filed. McGee took down the affiliation at her request, and Steinbock received final approval last month. Steinbock says she has often chastised McGee about his tendency to stretch the truth, but has, at the same time, always kept cordial relations with him.
Jumping the gun and announcing as a done deal what is still working its way through the bureaucracy is a risky move. (There’s a reason I haven’t yet updated my website or my profile here to reflect my promotion to Associate Professor — it doesn’t take effect until August 21.) Sometimes things don’t emerge at the other end of that bureaucratic tunnel the way you expected they would.
However, note that the paperwork for McGee’s adjunct professorship seems to have been filed sometime in 2005, and the approval came through in May of 2008. With that kind of turnaround time, you might well forget to add your affiliations to the CV by the time they come through.
So, this is a failure of judgment, but it seems to me much less serious than the authorship imbroglio discussed above.
Many mark the turning point at AMBI as the moment when the joint master’s program in bioethics fell apart without warning just a year after McGee’s arrival, in 2006, forcing dozens of faculty members to choose between Robert Baker at Union College, and McGee. The two leaders–juggling the concerns of the administration–were unable to come to agreement on matters ranging from resource allocation, personnel recruitment and governance. Union College is now partnered with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “Since we couldn’t live together, we divorced. Like individual divorces, there are a few messy details,” Baker wrote in a recent e-mail to Scientific American. “I have no comments about these details.”
Serving two administrative masters and also maintaining the character of an institute is a pretty serious challenge. I can’t find anything in the SciAm article to indicate that McGee precipitated the disagreements about resource allocation, personnel recruitment, or governance. Rather, this looks to me like an instance where there was no workable way to balance the interests of the various parties — including the parties at the administrative level who, in academia, can make or break joint ventures of this sort.
In the process of the dissolution of the joint master’s program, students had to choose which of the two dis-jointed successor programs to join. Moreover, faculty members had occasion to decide with which (if either) of the successor programs they want to be affiliated. There are reports that McGee became angry about some of these decisions. Maybe McGee yelled at some faculty who went to the Union College center, although he denies it, pointing out that it would be counterproductive from the point of view of rebuilding morale and convincing folks to stay with AMBI.
Myself, I’m a fan of treating people with respect. But it can’t be that SciAm is holding up yelling as an example of unethical conduct, can it? Do they know that PIs have been known to holler at their grad students?
In late 2006 Summer Johnson, now 27, completed her PhD in public health from Johns Hopkins University. She was hired at AMBI as an entry-level assistant professor in medical ethics and to help the institute gain certification for its newly independent masters program. Months after her arrival, she was promoted to graduate studies director–second in command at AMBI–through a process that some on the search committee questioned. In an e-mail [Albany Law School professor Alicia] Ouellette sent to McGee and the rest of the search committee, she wrote, “I am uncomfortable making [the hiring] decision before the search committee has met even once to define the criteria for the candidate who would best serve the institution.” Bonnie Steinbock, who sat on the search committee, forwarded this e-mail and McGee’s response to ScientificAmerican.com, and they were verified by a second search committee member.
In his e-mail response on February 25, 2007, McGee denied that decisions would be made without a meeting and proceeded to make a persuasive case for Johnson and an accelerated hiring process.
Now, McGee is engaged to Johnson — although there seems not to be evidence of any kind of romantic involvement at the time of Johnson’s promotion.
Subverting the official process on hiring and promotion does amount to violating a rule. Also, the SciAm article suggests that Albany Medical College may have had a policy in place making the relationship between McGee and Johnson — distinct from the question of how Johnson was promoted — improper. (The article doesn’t actually cite such a policy, though.)
Maybe the official policies were bad ones. The best response to bad rules is to make an argument for better ones. Given how long it can take to change entrenched policies, this can be a frustratingly slow approach.
On the other hand, as I’ve noted before, a bad response to a bad rule is to pretend to follow it while sneaking around and doing what you feel like doing in secret. I’m not sure McGee’s alleged behavior falls in this category.
The events that led to his departure seem to have been set in place on April 18, when a professor affiliated with A.M.C. told the administration that McGee’s relationship with Johnson was inappropriate and detrimental to the master’s program, according to the informant.
If you’re directing an institute (or a graduate program) and you become aware that you may have a conflict of interest, real or perceived, that undercuts the proper functioning of the institute (or that graduate program), what would be an ethical response? To remove the conflict of interest, or, if that isn’t possible, to remove yourself.
McGee resigned as director of AMBI in mid-May. Johnson resigned as the director of graduate studies and as an assistant professor a month later.
Not resigning under these circumstances would have been the unethical move. If this was the impetus behind McGee’s resignation, I don’t think it can be characterized as a resignation due to unethical conduct.