Blue State Blues: Universities and the 'Chicago Way'

Blue State Blues: Universities and the 'Chicago Way'

My father called me from LAX on Wednesday, on his way back home to Chicago after the holidays. Had I seen the Los Angeles Times yet? “There’s a story there about a doctor at UCLA. A whistleblower. They had to pay him $10 million because of a lawsuit over corruption at the hospital. He accused them of taking big money from medical companies and putting patients’ lives at risk.” My father paused. “Just like what happened to me.”

Ten years ago, my dad was the whistleblower in a case that blew open the corruption in the organ transplant system in Chicago. Three hospitals–all run by universities–were accused of gaming the transplant list, lying about how sick their own patients were to move them to the top. They cheated without regard to the lives that were placed at risk at other hospitals–people near death, in some cases. They betrayed the public trust.

My father had fought a quiet battle against corruption for years. As former head of the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois, he had helped devise the rules, after all. He took his concerns about cheating at his own hospital, the University of Illinois at Chicago–a public institution–straight to the top of the academy. The university listened and did nothing–that is, nothing but retaliate against my father for trying to stop a terrible moral wrong.

In the end, he was vindicated. “A man of principle,” the Chicago Tribune declared. As reporter Nara Schoenberg wrote: “According to Pollak’s suit and the government, three of the city’s top medical centers–the University of Illinois Hospital, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the University of Chicago Hospitals–improperly diagnosed and hospitalized patients in the 1990s to move them up on the liver transplant waiting list.

You can see why the story of Dr. Robert Pedowitz, former chair of UCLA’s orthopedic surgery department, struck a chord with my father. In 2012, Chad Terhune of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “the surgeon sued UCLA, the UC regents, fellow surgeons and senior university officials, alleging they failed to act on his complaints about widespread conflicts of interest and later retaliated against him for speaking up.”

All of that is deeply familiar. In my father’s case, Schoenberg wrote, the dean of the medical school “sent Pollak a disciplinary letter accusing him of ‘virtual insubordination,’ an accusation that arose, in part, from Pollak’s refusal to conduct the liver program in the ‘Chicago Way,’ the lawsuit says.” (Yes–that same “Chicago Way” so beloved of the Obama administration, one that satraps like David Axelrod wear like a badge of honor.)

“Pollak continued raising objections for another year or so, until April 1998, when he was removed from his post as chief of the transplant division….In the aftermath of Pollak’s demotion, all 65 surgery residents signed a letter ‘imploring’ University of Illinois President James Stukel to reinstate him. The letter described him as ‘one of the most dedicated, moral and honest mentors we have.'” Likewise, apparently, in Pedowitz’s case at UCLA.

As Terhune writes: “As department chairman, Pedowitz testified, he became concerned about colleagues who had financial ties to medical-device makers or other companies that could unduly influence their care of patients or taint important medical research. He also alleged that UCLA looked the other way because the university stood to benefit financially from the success of medical products or drugs developed by its doctors.”

In an interview with the Times, Dr. Pedowitz warned: “These are serious issues that patients should be worried about… These problems exist in the broader medical system and they are not restricted to UCLA.” He could have added: these problems exist in universities, where administrators think they are immune from the kind of accountability that private companies, and to a far lesser extent government agencies, eventually have to face.

At Harvard, my alma mater, a student recently took to the pages of the Harvard Crimson to express her deep frustration at the university’s failure to respond appropriately to complaints about sexual assault–and in her own case in particular. I might have chalked it up to the usual absurdity and narcissism of campus sexual politics, had I not had classmates for whom sexual assault on campus had been a very real, debilitating reality.

To the credit of Harvard president Drew G. Faust, the university is–finally–taking the student’s concerns quite seriously. But there are other students–those facing accusation of assault and far lesser violations–who have no real due process rights within the university’s medieval internal justice system. The Obama administration has, unfortunately, weighed in to reinforce the universities’ absurd and often unjust prejudice against defendants.

Universities must enjoy the protections of academic freedom (though they are more inclined to conformity, as Azusa Pacific’s recent decision to “disinvite” Professor Charles Murray reminds us). Yet they ought not exist as a sphere apart from principles of transparency, accountability and fairness. The “Chicago Way” is not just an ethic of the street, but also the ivory tower. It is time to confront the political patrons of such academic corruption.