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.
"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."
The above is at the crux of the matter. Who does the scientist serve, his fellow scientists, his grant givers, his employers, his asperations and ambitions, or science?
The writer should be ashamed to show his face, anywhere.
He has a real problem, not only ethically, but mentally,
if he feels he should not "rock the boat," "make enemies" or "go off the reservation" in ANY SCIENTIFIC FIELD, from
those seeking to ease the way in life for millions of people to paleontology, who want to create the correct record.
Trying describe what ethics are, to these barbarians, is
simply not worth the time to do it. There are other names
under which they can be categorized, but "scientists" simply no longer applies.
Nice post, SG!
I wish I could sent this to you directly without hiding behind an anonymous comment. As a faculty member at AMC - I am prohibited from speaking publicly about this.
Your thoughtful post on Dr McGee is very well done - but as you imply - there is much more to this picture than meets the eye. Alas - the politics have actually protected Glenn from this more than they caused his departure. He is - as the SiAm article implied - a "Rock Star" and in a place like Albany - that will carry with it a rather long leash to do what one likes.
At the end of the day - that's what caused Glenn's downfall. The leash was too long.
This brilliant man - with enormous potential - and extraordinary vision - became his own worst enemy. Like many visionaries - he needed to be mentored and managed - so that his creative energy was properly funneled.
Unfortunately, his position provided no structure for such management and mentoring. Rules that applied to others seemed not to apply to him at all (or so he thought) ... and your review of the hiring of Dr Johnson is spot-on. While there was no evidence of romantic relationship at the time she was hired, Dr. Mcgee attempted to strong-arm .. and then circumvented the search committee and caused her to be hired before they adequately defined the role or interviewed any other applicants.
So in an academic institution in which transparency and fairness should be the rule of any appointment or promotion process, this man flaunted his disregard for these principles, yet finessed such episodes with his fluent mastery of the written and spoken word.
There are many other examples that I could (but should not) share.
Over time - I expect that more details will trickle out of the institution about this tragic chapter for AMC and for Glenn - and my only hope is that both will learn well from this.
Glenn has a long, bright career ahead of him, but he needs structure, mentoring and clear boundaries so that his genius is channeled in a positive direction.
AMC needs to take ownership for its inability to herd this cat - and then find a way to carry forward the bioethics institute so that it can realize its great potential.
Any one of the incidents could be interpreted as a "misunderstanding" and/or as "inadvertent". Put them all together, and it sounds to me like a long-standing pattern of being an arrogant bullshit artist.
I too have to post anonymously. It's not, as some have suggested, a matter of being afraid to go on the record. It is, however, a matter of fearing retribution. The reported pattern on misconduct may sound inconsequential, but it is not. People moved their families to Albany on the basis of Dr. McGee's false promises only to find themselves without a job. Others have faced the humilation that comes from being confronted by students misled about the character of faculty members as a result of Dr. McGee's "spin."
Think about it. Albany Med invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring Dr. McGee here, and thousands more to build an Institute. It had nothing to gain and everything to lose in cutting him loose.
I've learned two things from this mess. Confidentiality agreements are clearly worthless, and I need legal coverage if a student, or god forbid, my own institution ever went after me. My institution isn't unionized. I'm joining the AAUP today.
An ethics journal editor who submits a paper to another journals with forged signatures? I guess my question is, does anyone in ethics actually take McGee's own journal seriously?
I don't write anonymously. I am replying not only because this post is thoughtful but also because the regular group of planted comments have made their way here, most notably that of "janet@yahoo" and my favorite, from "AMC faculty" who writes "Over time - I expect that more details will trickle out of the institution about this tragic chapter for AMC and for Glenn - and my only hope is that both will learn well from this." That is what we call a threat in the world of academic blackmail, which is all this whole incident was - an effort by a losing program to kill a winning program by killing off its leader. Some awfully smart people behaved incredibly irresponsibly - and I admit to having been among them - but there is nothing as amazing as the way the people who planted this story, its accompanying narrative...all to make some money from a frivolous lawsuit and to save the competing masters program from extinction at the hands of, um, talent. The story in Scientific American now has extensive commentary by myself, now that I can speak freely. So if you have a minute and bothered to read this for any reason other than to make sure I'm still dead, surf on over to scientific american's second libelous story and read the commentary.
An open letter to Scientific American:
The writer of the story you published in SciAm.com about me, is riddled with easily fact-checked errors whose presence in the online magazine, let alone as "Editor's Choice," is disheartening. Retraction, not notation of objection by myself, is obviously called for.
Borrell agreed to my request that he would tape each conversation, and promised me specifically and on tape that he would provide me with readback. He often asked me to hang on while he started the recorder. Somehow, either because he couldn't hear his own tape or because he was not taping at all, he misquoted me or quoted me out of context almost all the time. Why no one checked that is beyond me. It seems obvious that the reporter can either be shown not to have taped, or to have misquoted from the tapes. If it is your contention that I am a public figure, gross negligence in this regard would seem to me to be malicious enough to meet at least the moral test of libel. But then, I'm an unethical ethicist. Ask a lawyer.
As you know, the story even starts with egregious science errors that you didn't notice until I wrote you, such as mistakes about the birth of Dolly or the name - confused with another book I edited - of my first authored book, purportedly the key to my career. I didn't capture that earlier version. But the URL for the story as it was corrected to include those matters is: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=glenn-mcgee&print=true
After waiting more than a week for SciAm.com to fact check - and emailing you to ask that you listen to his tapes and do your own fact checking on grounds that there were many errors - which you clearly did not do - I wrote last night a reply to make it clear that this is eggregious yellow journalism. I again request a retraction. If you'd rather have the story judged by your peers, fine by me. I've copied them. More than that, I want to know and I am certain others in science journalism who cover bioethics will as well, how this story was ever published without any kind of fact checking on the part of the website.
I have pieced my comments together below, all written within the last 24 hours. They follow, not particularly succinct, but at least accurate. I count more errors than facts by a wide margin. Maybe now someone will check them, and ask: why is this the editor's choice at the nation's oldest magazine?
Speaking as an editor I can testify that occasionally a story is so full of errors that even if I were a "public figure," (a stretch) the failure to do fact checking of a reporter who said he had tapes of every interview is gross negligence. The "unethical ethicist" is disheartening, easy irony. I hope sciam.com readers expect SOME sort of claim about the ethics of ethicists to undergird a hatchet job on the life of an ethics professor, particularly given that the narrative about me is rife with what Borrell knew was untrue or distortion.
The website ran in tiny print (after a week) my correction of their obvious error, the attribution of my success to Human Cloning Debate, neither my "first book" nor authored by me (edited)...which they said appeared alongside the birth of Dolly...in 1998? Wait - I forgot - this isn't a science magazine. Maybe Dolly wasn't born in February of 2007. Somebody tell Ian Wilmut though.
The theme here is simple. Taping every interview, Borrell was given latitude to tell a fish story, and sciam.com's new editor, who doesn't reveal that he was my editor for more than a year at The Scientist (where I often challenged his judgment) chose as "Editor's Choice" for days an article with errors numbering in the dozens. Let's stick to the stupid, uncontroverted ones for now: I do not have two iPhones. No faculty member of AMBI accused me of forgery, nor the journal. Vincent Bonventre, busy with ethics issues of his own, never returned my calls or emails. I did not say to any reporter that I was "Socrates with a Beeper," and told Brendan clearly that I've written in an article against that concept itself; I gave him the citation. bioethics.net is not the blog for The American Journal of Bioethics. AJOB was co-founded in 1999, not 2001, and three scholars (not two). Sorry Paul. No one in bioethics EVER described AJOB as "trendy." The study of citations by AJOB editors never happened. I never said there are two journals in bioethics; I serve on editorial boards for ten. There is a metric for influence of bioethics journals, by ISI, and AJOB is 100% more oft cited than Borrell's choice [2007 JCI]. And that's page one of Brendan's piece.
The University didn't fund the Balint chair, donors did. The name NY Inst of Bioethics was suggested to me by Dr. Sturman, director of the NYSDOH Wadsworth Center, who appointed me chief of the office of bioethics after first suggesting that I not take the Albany Med job and that I work for him instead. He went WITH me to get my badge and set up an office.
... Wayne Shelton moved when I created for him his own program to do health services research, named him director, and co-authored significant portions of two grants to fund it. He didn't move because I angered him but because I moved him to put him next to the unit he studied. Contrary to Borrell's implication he said he did not want to move in email. This wasn't a performance issue or rejection of my directorship and Borrell knows that the implication is simply false. When actual concerns WERE raised about faculty, I was told that decisions about non-renewal of faculty were mine to make, then told they were not, then that they were, then that they were not. The paper mentioned from the law review was not a new submission halted because of bad data, it had been submitted previously to a medical journal, and I submitted it at the request of the law journal, after first asking permission of my three co-authors, who have been crystal clear about the confusion in the submission process. I'm sorry Mr. Borrell is unfamiliar with how confusion arises in cases like this, but it is egregious that he fails to note that concerns about data analysis were not raised during this submission process, that I lecture about how this paper is a great example of problems that can only be avoided by thinking in a different way about authorship (which I noted in Science [NextWave] in a piece about whether it takes a village to author an article), or that I have noted this kind of confusion elsewhere including in my work about the Korean stem cell debacle. Borrell just twists the truth beyond recognition. Or, um, Ivan, how about you survey PI/senior authors about how they handle permissions forms where there is prior submission and they believe all authors to be in agreement with resubmission. A screwup - for sure - isn't "an unethical ethicist commits forgery by claiming 'proxy.'" Or maybe it is. You judge. But keep in mind what I said to Borrell on tape ten times: only a total moron would think he could hide unintended authorship of an indexed publication. I have no comments on the kind words by Alicia Ouellette or Sean Philpott about midnight oil or what people "were told" about my arrival. I'm happy though to say that I have dozens of emails from both acclaiming my leadership and emails from each asking me not to leave, each written long after Borrell asserts that faculty were running in terror or anger. Borrell asserts that my CV is padded. Just asserts. No substantiation...
[And] Continuing with easy errors: I told Borrell on tape, contra his broad claim about my affect as a journal editor, that I have several times and in particular to the editor and to the director of the Hastings Center complimented their journal as the best writing in bioethics. If you fact check you cannot confuse my intent. He twists, to make the point he wants to make, statements to the effect that 'naturally there would be competition', or that 'I knew I would make enemies', but the tape will show that those two comments were in reference to a set of discussions about an event involving our two journals and the American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities, which for a brief period entertained the notion - to the point of a contract written and practically signed without the knowledge of the ASBH membership or of journal editors - of a special, exclusive relationship between Hastings and ASBH. Editors of a number of journals, led by myself, and other leaders in bioethics, objected, Hastings' contract was scrapped, and a new system for journals and the bioethics organization was developed. That fracas is long past and my discussion of it was more than put in context - but Brendan ignores the whole matter because it doesn't fit the portrait.
Berrell is in his element when he makes the truth look like a lie or vice versa. For example, he is unable to write that I did not hold the position of chief of bioethics for the Wadsworth Center of NYSDOH, a role which Wadsworth's director, Dr. Lawrence Sturman (unquoted, of course), conceived of, with a title Sturman himself signed off on, before helping me set up an office and accompanying me to speed the process of getting my ID, etc., so I could advance bioethics at Wadsworth. It goes without saying that there were great ambitions for this novel role. I said (but was not quoted) that Sturman told me not to go to Albany Med, because it would be much more prestigious to work for Wadsworth instead. But I didn't take such a role, nor did I say that the role I eventually took was paid. Nor is that relevant at all. In fact I would never have accepted payment from the state government to serve as bioethics shepherd in its state labs. I tell Brendan (check the tape, Ivan) that it would be dispositive to see my ID, but that I did not have time before PICKING UP MY KIDS to get it. He loves that quote. He frosts it with the most idiotic press release ever, from NYDOH, saying I "gave myself the lofty title" but was a volunteer. With an ego. But Ivan, where's the "he wasn't" tape?
[Still] Continuing with obvious errors: Not only does Borrell not demonstrate that Wadsworth does not remember this role, which he could easily have verified, and opt instead even after I plead with him to speak to Larry Sturman, who at this point would need to be deposed in a libel case, as so many things ride on what he said to me in front of others or in email. Nope. That would have required due diligence. Fact checking. So Borrell twists a press release to make it look ALMOST like I did not hold a title (though the press release doesn't say that) and like I wanted a title, not sought to build a role. Borrell ignores entirely the whole POINT of the Alden March Bioethics Institute where that role is concerned, in fact, which was to build the first highly states-focused bioethics research program. Again, that wouldn't have fit the portrait. Borrell implies that I created a fiction concerning confusion that occurred, and subsequent anger, when the state government didn't like it that I was "off message" on Terri Schiavo. He does so by quoting this PR guy from NYSDOH, who says that state officials have no record of the meeting in which I was reprimanded for what was essentially Sturman's fault, namely speaking on Schiavo as the director of the New York Institute for Bioethics (AMBI's original name, coined by Sturman...), because people confused the name of the institute with the state government. Sturman was also motivated by the fact that, as he put it to me, a very angry Tia Powell, head of the Task Force on Life and the Law in NYC, part of DOH, had faxed him some news coverage of me and said to him that "if there is" - and this is a quote - "a bioethicist to the department of health, it is me, not McGee." Sturman left me swinging in the wind, including at the meeting the PR guy doesn't recall, at which were attending: Don Parens, Dennis Whalen, Sturman, myself, and - guess who - the PR GUY. I worked with my Dean to rename the institute to alleviate pressure on Sturman, but Powell had already poisoned the nascent Office of Bioethics because, as Sturman put it, she would have had to be in Albany a great deal more, and while she had volunteered to do that, she hadn't followed through more than twice. Or so he said. He said ride out the storm. I don't think he had Brendan in mind, and in the meantime the Office essentially atrophied as other Institute priorities took their place. Where's the exaggeration, Brendan? Where's the tape, Ivan?
[STILL] Continuing with the simple fact check problems...Borrell claims that I represented that I had job offers that I did not have. This one is simple. I said I turned down an offer from the Congressional Research Service, Congress' research arm in the Library of Congress. Borrell really drilled on this one. "So it wasn't the whole library," he said. I loved that. No, Brendan, I was not offered the job nor said to anybody I was offered the job of being bioethicist to the robots in the stacks. The job, offered by Royal Shipp, head of CRS' relevant division, who could EASILY have been fact checked, was for what is easily the best division of the Library, and was highly competitive, and was in fact not "congressional bioresearch ethicist," or at least not by my quotation. Tape, anyone? Borrell, who didn't bother to find out what CRS is, just pretends that I've inflated the job. He does something very similar with an outstanding peer of mine in the field, Mark Hall at Wake Forest, whose medical school dean did in fact ask me to come work in the institution, which had been, according to the external committee it convened 18 months or so before, been looking "for a Glenn McGee." The person who let them know I was leaving Penn said, with levity (God forbid), "well, one is available." I did in fact get to the negotiating stage on every aspect of a position at Wake Forest and Mark says nothing to the contrary; in fact both in email and phone he and I, and the Dean and I moreover, reach a point at which I finally must decide whether to take an endowed chair and directorship in hand at Albany or give Wake a couple more days to get their offer together. I withdraw, reluctantly, and nobody disagrees that this is what happened. Listen to Borrell's spin. It's amazing: Wake "did not make any offers or fill any positions that year." Anybody here understand anything at all about academia? I was clear with Borrell that I did not have a paper offer from Wake for the reasons just outlined. Look what he does with it.
The worst example is Emory. I was told quite clearly that I was the leading candidate for a position Borrell says didn't exist ("was never in the offing"). Ok, a weird use of the word "offing." But the real issue, Editor, is sanctioning Borrell's implication that my having said to Steinbock that I'd turned down Emory is inconsistent with Emory's Provost having said "McGee withdrew from consideration in advance of any final decision being made." My [private] email was misleading? Tell it to my #2 iPhone [which I don't have, of course, as the tape would reveal, or a call back fact check]...
More fact check errors. Still in reverse order and apologies for the boring replies and for the confusing nature of replying in reverse. Borrell lies when he says that I state on tape that the reason for my statements about Emory were that I had been in discussions with Emory for a long time. In fact I have been OFFERED positions at Emory twice, though neither materialized in my moving, despite my love of Emory. Once I was unable to make the move because Emory had to hire (its Dean reported at the 11th hour) four new cardiologists, which left no money to cover any staff support for me or my journal, and once because the funding for the endowed chair that I was hoping to take did not materialize within the 6 months promised by then Ethics director James Fowler. Fact checking Emory's current ethics center faculty, whom I've known, um, forever, and whom I named to Brendan (check the tape...) would have validated that I have been interviewed for positions at Emory - and selected as the focal candidate for jobs (in excess of those two) that never quite materialized - another two times. The second job offer I mention above resulted in a major promotion for me at Penn, in fact.
Borrell hacks away. Having established he thinks that I exaggerated, he turns to say that the reporter at the Albany Business review, which quoted me on those job offers in an article about how I represented the new wave of intellectual talent poring into Albany (irony, anyone?), stands by his story. Well good. His story was right. But for Brendan, this is another clever way to make it appear I exaggerated.
I will not dignify Steinbock's comments about whether or not she received the Ob-Gyn appointment I sought for her, or whether it appeared too quickly on the website, with a reply. I was disheartened Bonnie decided to forward my emails [and particularly the one that closes the article...what a decision by the magazine to print such an email, wholy apart from hers to forward it!].
You may have noticed at this point that Brendan isn't the most trenchant reporter where the underlying question is concerned. Satisfied that I'm egregiously prone to exaggeration, on the basis of his egregious exaggeration, Borrell tears away deeper and deeper at my character, and asks nothing - to the point that his omission itself bears investigation - about the motivation of anyone involved in the sudden, inexplicable dismissal of a guy (me) working in bioethics who just weeks before was named by the Chamber of Commerce alongside the governor and president of RPI as one of the ten most influential people in the Albany area.
But wait there IS a reason. A woman! Maybe women plural! Sex scandal! [Hang on eager readers...that's coming...]
Borrell simply fails in every way to get correct the information about the graduate programs. Not at present affiliated with the AMBI masters, but having designed it with Dr. Johnson, and having run the institute during the past three years, I can tell you that the claim Borrell makes regarding the outcome of the negotiations concerning the masters' programs is false on the math and flat out biased on the "personality." His numbers are woefully wrong. When the programs broke apart, which ne,ither Bob Baker nor I wanted, state law required a "teach out" allowing students to stay with the existing program or move to a new one. I'm sure Bob is candid when he says 27 went to Union's program. Three came to AMBI. Then AMBI exploded in growth. At the close of 2008, barring some dramatic change, it will easily be the largest online (and perhaps, generally) bioethics graduate program. Its applicant pool is easily ten times what the previous program saw in terms of quantity and quality, and the biggest problem was hiring faculty. In the past months the administration finally approved several new slots. What Brendan either didn't care to research or flat out concealed is that the effect of the AMBI success on the competitor program was enormous. In the law school, where Ouellette is quoted on the non-"necessity" of the split, and little is made of the fact that she cast her lot with the Union group shortly before Albany Law's health law students started coming (particularly the top ones) to AMBI. My role in developing the health law & bioethics program at ALS, which Ouellette describes in an email as "the single most exciting thing to happen in the law school since [she]'d been there", suddenly became a liability.
The actual numbers in the Union program aren't known to me. I have only a shadow of a sense of how badly they were hurt by their administration's decision that either it would make 75% plus of the revenue for the masters program, or they would ditch us. But it is clear to everyone with whom I have spoken that the existence of AMBI - which Borrell of course doesn't even DESCRIBE, neither my innovations with iTunes, nor our radically new curriculum, nor the mentor-mentee/everyone must publish program - was crushing Union.
Lo and behold, about two weeks after a conference held at Union, there is a sudden meeting of the minds between three people formerly affiliated with AMBI concerning how they were treated a year ago. A complaint made, an interview held, and I am told point blank (on tape) that I'm cleared...until...and this is where Borrell takes off his scientist costume and becomes a gossip columnist...suddenly I am called in to discuss the fact that I will no longer serve as the director of the institute. The reasons given have been discussed in the media. But Borrell, quotes an "informant," which OBVIOUSLY SHOULD have been checked for conflict of interest, who appeared at AMC to say that I had a relationship with Dr. Johnson that was inappropriate and detrimental to the Masters Program. Heaven help you, Ivan, when the libel attorney explains that it is now known that this "informant" turns out to also on the same day, a couple weeks after the conference at Union, to have been claiming that I had acted inappropriately toward her and others ... planning to put the medical center in a position where it would have to nuke me or defend me against multiple "potential plaintiffs," two of whom have direct relationships with - you guessed it - a competitive program.
It gets so much worse. Brendan's failure to investigate sources or conflicts and sciam.com's failure to fact check goes to this depth. I indicated to Brendan multiple times that I had been told specifically that I was in compliance with policy in my relationships - my personal relationships - and in fact I indicated to him that I had that on tape from the highest level person to whom I reported. Dr. Johnson was congratulated on her 'fit' with me, offered a $35,000 plus raise would she stay on with Albany Med in spite of my departure, and most importantly was told -- and told Brendan on tape -- that she was told specifically that there was no problem with our relationship; it had been disclosed according to Albany Med policy; disclosed to the head of HR. To hell with policy: at no point did I have a relationship with anyone that violated any professional standard with regard to conflicts of interest such as evaluation or special treatment etc. As for last straws, well, Brendan just made that up. Of whole cloth. Prove he didn't.
One last part infuriates me. Long before there was any relationship between myself and Dr. Johnson, whom your commentator below calls a "gold digger" (for quitting a $100K plus position rather than lie to students about the effect of the changes in the program? wouldn't that be gold dropper??), there is her hiring. Brendan gets several copies of email of my "rushing" Johnson into the job. But he doesn't interview the committee. Nor does he quote - most important - Dr. Ouellette agreeing to the ultimate solution whole heartedly. [I'd be happy to forward multiple emails substantiating not only that but also the general context within which those conversations between myself and Dr. Ouellette took place].
...Ultimately, this is hardly the place for a response to an article that reaches the level of libel by "page" two, but given the number of anonymous posters here who keep referring to "more to come out in the weeks and months to come" and other untold horrors, it seems like it is time to put out this fire. I've been paying for Brendan's lies for weeks now, though ultimately all he does is act as the mule for those who extorted Albany Med, did everything they could to "leave a body" once they pulled out the knives on me, and did so for reasons that defy logic. So many people in the field are asking why a small group of those whom I worked with, helped in many ways, and never betrayed have suddenly become part of a smear campaign that literally aims to obliterate my scholarly work and replace it with a gossip column. The answer is ugly and sad: because they wanted money, because their competitive program was getting crushed, or because I did something to offend them at some point when they had expected me to be more supportive. In any event, Scientific American isn't the place - nor an unknown science writer turned gossip columnist the person - one would have expected to see this discussed. And the total lack of subtlety mixed with the gross negligence bordering (if not crossing) the border of malice in libel that is present in the writing and fact checking of this piece - it stuns not just me but others, even if only because they came to the website to read about cosmology, BGH or Asian Moths, not the private life of a professor [in the absence of a claim about the threshold at which details of this intensity bear on being an ethicist - or even quotes from ANYONE about that threshold that supposedly grounds the whole TITLE of the story...but I am straying from the SIMPLE FACTUAL ERRORS].
After waiting through the day July 5th, during which intervening period Ivan has emailed me and posted to the comments section (later retracting his post), without any movement by the magazine, I posted the following:
"I note there are no corrections, and is no retraction, from web Managing Editor Oranski or the venerable editor of Scientific American, John Rennie, whom I doubt was given a copy of the allegations of dozens of unchecked basic errors I've made about a story to which his magazine is about to publish a follow up - by the same author. I didn't even address the broader contextual errors or take any real time to discuss the conflicts of interest vitally relevant to the key sources for this article, matters of interest I am SURE to John Rennie and SciAm's readers. I take it that at some point sciam.com will be replying to the dozen times I make requests for tape verification of false quotes. But the web site's waiting - when Ivan is online responding to me and clearly available - until SciAm posts its next story, while leaving this story as "Editor's Choice," is a choice, and a malicious one at that."
Why? Brendan has made it clear to me - in message after message, the first claiming he wanted to talk to me about my future plans, the second asking me to comment on "a story about lawsuits against Albany Med," the third asking me to comment on new issues, and the fourth giving me an ominous deadline to offer comment on his 'new information'. I'm sure it was no problem, given the promise of a half-dozen anonymous commenters that there was "so much more that will come out in the weeks and months to come," to find something to write for the tiny audience of readers of the nation's leading science magazine who would care about my life. Even in the absence of a claim by Borrell about how the deepest scut he could conjecture about my life bears on my role as an academic studying and writing about ethics, Borrell and Oranski could put together a story to "follow up" - but nobody would care unless SciAm.com continued hyping this story - with all its errors - for days as "Editor's Choice" prior to the next installment.
At this point though I doubt Scientific American will be doing the investigation of those errors. I know I'm not counting on that.
And in this spirit, despite the enormous damage this article has done to my reputation, I'm leaving it to any of you who find attacks on bioethicists or the matters that I have (or Brendan has) discussed, to decide whether or not Scientific American owes anyone - me, its readers, Albany Medical College, or any of the others discussed in this article - anything by way of correction, retraction, or more, at least until it argues for any kind of bar on ethical conduct of ethicists, a strong claim at a minimum.