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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 1999

CAUT Brokers Settlement in Olivieri Case

In the early morning of Jan. 26, CAUT brokered a settlement between Dr. Nancy Olivieri and the Hospital for Sick Children (HSC) in Toronto. The settlement vindicates Olivieri and reinstates her as head of the haemoglobinopathy program at the HSC and Toronto Hospital.

"The key to reaching settlement," said CAUT President Bill Graham, "was the success of CAUT and the University of Toronto Faculty Association in convincing University of Toronto President Robert Prichard to intervene directly with HSC to reinstate Dr. Olivieri.

"He acted after it was made clear that Dr. Olivieri would be unable to carry out her internationally significant research unless she retained full responsibility for the program."

CAUT invited two of the world's experts in blood disease, Sir David Weatherall of Oxford and Dr. David Nathan, President of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard, to Toronto to help convince the University of Toronto to act. Drs. Weatherall and Nathan, met privately with Prichard and the dean of medicine.

After hammering out the outlines of an agreement, Weatherall and Nathan engaged in shuttle-diplomacy between the parties, assisted by Graham and CAUT's Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee Chair Pat O'Neill. Prichard took up the task of convincing the hospital authorities to sign the agreement. Also playing key roles were UTFA Grievance Vice-President Rhonda Love and UTFA counsel Evelyn Napier.

"The settlement is not the end of the affair, or even the beginning of the end," said Graham. "In the words of Winston Churchill 'it is only the end of the beginning'."

The settlement does not fully protect Dr. Olivieri's academic freedom; nor does it protect the rights and freedoms of the colleagues at HSC who stood by her throughout the ordeal. These include Dr. Peter Durie, head of cystic fibrosis research at HSC; Dr. Brenda Gallie, head of the blood and cancer research unit and Dr. Olivieri's research supervisor; and Dr. Helen Chan, a senior researcher in Gallie's unit. All three had received "gag orders" along with Olivieri, and all three have been intimidated and harassed at HSC.

Academic Freedom at Stake

Professor Arthur Schafer, Director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, has called the Olivieri case "the greatest academic scandal of our era."

"Not since the Crowe case at United College (now University of Winnipeg) in the late 1950s has CAUT dealt with a case of such magnitude and historic importance," said Graham. "The Crowe case dealt with religion and the church. In our era the problem is the corrosive effects of for-profit corporations on our public institutions, such as hospitals and universities. The scandal at HSC and U of T is a symptom of the sickness inside Canadian health care and research funding."

At the time of the scandal the university was in the process of negotiating a corporate donation of $20- to $30-million for a new medical building from Apotex, Inc.

Olivieri's research is of immense importance locally and internationally. The inherited blood diseases, thalassemia and sickle cell disease -- the world's most common single gene disorders -- affect one in seven people globally, mostly of non-European descent. Her clinical research program is the key link in the international chain of research into finding an effective and humanly acceptable treatment.

Throughout Dr. Olivieri's ordeal, CAUT provided active support--intervening with the authorities at HSC, the Toronto Hospital and the University of Toronto.

The University of Toronto Faculty Association filed grievances on behalf of Olivieri, Durie, Gallie, and Chan, charging the university with failing to protect their academic freedom and failing to protect them from discrimination, harassment and intimidation. UTFA also filed an association grievance, charging the university with violating policies guaranteeing faculty members certain rights and freedoms. Ironically, it was on that very day that HSC, in a closed meeting of its "chiefs," fired Nancy Olivieri as director of the haemoglobinopathy program because of objections to a letter written to HSC by Olivieri's lawyers.

The letter referred to the ethnic backgrounds of the patients in Olivieri's program and stated that as the number of patients had grown from 150 to 450 the clinical support coverage had been reduced by 42%. The letter asked for additional coverage to enable Dr. Olivieri to meet the terms of her research grants and still be able to supervise the clinical care of the patients. Minutes of the HSC meeting, since made public, say that "the implication" of the letter, i.e., that HSC "would condone differential access to treatment for children and their families at HSC based on racial and ethnic origin is both abhorrent and incorrect."

Issues Still Outstanding

In January, UTFA brought to the administration's attention that the Affiliation Agreement between HSC and U of T had expired on December 31. It warned that the agreement should not be renewed until full rights and freedoms for clinical faculty members at HSC were assured. Two days later, the university rushed through a renewal of the agreement for one year without the necessary protections. UTFA immediately added the issue to its association grievance.

Shortly afterward, CAUT arranged for the intervention of Drs. Nathan and Weatherall, as well as Dr. John Porter of University College, London and Dr. Alan Schechter of Bethesda, Maryland, to meet in Toronto to assist in the reinstatement efforts.

At CAUT's request, Drs. Porter and Schechter undertook a scientific review of Dr. Olivieri's clinical program at both HSC and Toronto Hospital while Drs. Nathan and Weatherall sought an appropriate settlement. The report of the clinical program will be forthcoming soon.

"In the end, and, to their credit, the university did the right thing," said Graham. "They weighed in against the hospital to bring about Dr. Olivieri's reinstatement as head of the program. But, the scandal at HSC remains to be thoroughly investigated."

CAUT's AF&T Committee will take up the issue of an independent inquiry in early March.