As scholars of medical ethics and proud alumni of the University of Minnesota, we have been pained by the cloud that has hung over our alma mater in the decade since Dan Markingson killed himself while enrolled in a university-sponsored drug trial.
Many prominent voices have called for an independent investigation into Markingson’s death, including editors of the world’s most prestigious medical journals and more than 250 other ethicists, physicians and scholars.
Unfortunately, rather than working to be accountable and transparent, the university administration has taken a relentlessly defensive posture — hiding behind its lawyers, targeting its critics and distorting the facts.
Most notably, the administration has dismissed the need for an independent investigation by claiming that the university’s treatment of Markingson “has been exhaustively reviewed by federal, state and academic bodies since 2004,” in the words of the university’s general counsel. However, some of these claimed reviews simply did not occur, while others did not examine the most troubling aspects of the Markingson case. For example, the administration has repeatedly claimed that the Hennepin County District Court exonerated the university in a lawsuit brought by Markingson’s mother. In fact, the university convinced the court that it had legal immunity from the suit and could not be held liable no matter how badly it may have treated Markingson.
The administration’s refusal to commission an independent investigation of the Markingson case has tainted the university for far too long. That began to change recently when the Faculty Senate responded to a letter signed by more than 175 scholars asking for an external, independent investigation into the Markingson case. By an overwhelming margin, the Faculty Senate voted to approve a “Resolution on the Matter of the Markingson case” and endorse an inquiry into clinical research practices at the university.
Yet University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler appears intent on continuing the university’s efforts to avoid scrutiny. In a recent interview with the Minnesota Daily, Kaler said that the inquiry will not look at Markingson’s death at all, but rather will focus solely on “what we are doing now and what we’re going to do moving forward.”
Such a limited inquiry would defeat the purposes of the Senate’s action. Although the resolution does call for an inquiry into the university’s current practices, the Senate left no doubt that the aims of that investigation included resolving “questions [that] continue to be raised about the policies and procedures followed in the Markingson case” and addressing the harm to the university’s reputation “in consequence of this tragic case and its aftermath.”
Any inquiry that merely considers the university’s forms and policies without examining the experiences of actual research subjects would only further erode confidence in the institution and compound the harm to its reputation.
In addition to seeking to limit the scope of the investigation, Kaler seems intent on handpicking the investigators. Any involvement by the administration in selecting the members of the investigative panel would destroy the body’s credibility. The offices of the president, the general counsel and the Academic Health Center are all important players in the Markingson controversy whose roles must be examined by the investigative panel. It would be a clear conflict of interest for the targets of this inquiry to select their own investigators.
Finally, the investigative body must be given the legal authority it needs to conduct a thorough investigation. It must be empowered to look at financial records, to obtain internal e-mails and communications, to give legal protection to whistleblowers, and to interview former patients and research subjects and protect them from retaliation. For example, the panel should have the authority to waive confidentiality agreements that former patients and their family members may have signed as part of legal settlements with the university.
The Faculty Senate’s resolution presents an excellent opportunity to bring closure to a tragic case that has sullied our university for far too long. But this can only happen if the investigation is thorough, broad and independent, rather than carefully managed by the administration.
Matt Lamkin is an assistant professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law. This article was also submitted on behalf of Emily Smith Beitiks, deputy director of the Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University; Joseph E. Davis, director of research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia; Alicia Hall, assistant professor of philosophy, University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Susan Hawthorne, assistant professor of philosophy, St. Catherine University; James Harold, associate professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College; Ramona Illea, associate professor and chair, Department of Philosophy, Pacific University; Monica Greenwell Janzen, faculty member, Hennepin Technical College; Greg Kaebnick, editor, The Hastings Center Report; Barton Moffatt, assistant professor of philosophy, Mississippi State University; Susan Parry, philosophy instructor, Hennepin Technical College; Elita Poplavska, assistant professor, Riga Stradins University, and Maran Wolston, Philosophy Department faculty member, Minneapolis Community and Technical College.