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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2001

Academic Freedom in Jeopardy at Toronto

When David Healy accepted the positions as clinical director of the mood and anxiety disorders program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, he had no idea that academic freedom was not part of the deal.

Healy, an eminent scholar at the University of Wales College of Medicine, was actively recruited by the centre and department of psychiatry starting in July of 1999, and agreed to accept their offer in September of 2000.

In November, Healy was one of several distinguished researchers invited to speak at an international colloquium in Toronto on the history and future of psychiatry. Healy spoke about the interaction of new drugs and the social order and the conflicts between clinical practice, science and business. He expressed concern that large pharmaceutical companies, like big tobacco companies, may be avoiding research that reveals the hazards of their products.

He pointed to the controversy about whether some of the most widely prescribed antidepressants, Prozac and other SSRIs, can lead to suicide in some types of patients. He said he thought that was the case, but noted the strange fact that, despite a considerable controversy about this, not one piece of research has been carried out to answer that question.

"Although Healy's presentation received the highest participant evaluation for content of the nine presenters and panels, it must have touched a sore nerve," said Jim Turk, executive director of CAUT.

On the Monday following the Thursday conference, the centre's physician-in-chief and professor of psychiatry, David Goldbloom, began sending Healy urgent email messages asking him to telephone. But Healy was in New York doing archival research and presenting a series of lectures at the Cornell Medical Centre. Unable to reach Healy by phone, Goldbloom sent an email on Wednesday telling Healy that he no longer had a job at the centre and the university.

"We believe that it is not a good fit between you and the role as leader of an academic program in mood and anxiety disorders at the Centre and in relation to the University," Goldbloom wrote in his email to Healy.

"This view was solidified by your recent appearance at the Centre in the context of an academic lecture ... We do not feel your approach is compatible with the goals for development of the academic and clinical resource that we have."

When CAUT learned of these events in March, it asked for an immediate meeting with University of Toronto president Robert Birgeneau to discuss what appeared to be a blatant violation of academic freedom.

The university's response described CAUT's assertion as "groundless and offensive." Birgeneau said Healy's job was not taken away because Prozac's manufacturer, Eli Lilly and Co., put pressure on the university or the centre. (Eli Lilly is one of the principal private donors to the centre.)

Birgeneau also claimed the university had no option in the matter because the centre was providing the funding for Healy and the centre made the decision to take away his job.

CAUT replied, objecting to Birgeneau focussing so narrowly on a denial of Eli Lilly's involvement in the decision. "That may well be true," Turk and Tom Booth, president of CAUT, wrote. "But the fact remains that the University of Toronto and CAMH revoked an employment contract of a very senior academic because of the content of an academic talk he gave ... Whether the pressure came from a pharmaceutical manufacturer, from a University or CAMH official worried about offending a donor, or from administrators at the University and/or CAMH without any thought of the pharmaceutical industry, the action appears to be a very serious attack on academic freedom that should not be countenanced by any university in this country."

The University of Toronto Faculty Association has filed a notice of breach of the academic freedom clause in their Memorandum of Agreement with the university.

"The Healy case is the latest in a disturbing series of recent academic freedom cases at Canadian universities," Turk said. "CAUT really came together as a national organization in response to the denial of Harry Crowe's academic freedom at United College (now the University of Winnipeg) in the late 1950s. As we celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, CAUT is once again finding that academic freedom is in jeopardy.

"We intend to defend academic freedom with all our organizational vitality," Turk added. "Without academic freedom — the right to raise disturbing questions and provocative challenges to cherished beliefs of society and to engage in critical teaching and research — the university cannot fulfill its role in a democratic society."