FAQ on my resignation from Northwestern University

24 Aug 2015

Here are some FAQ based on questions I've been getting from people I've been telling about my resignation from Northwestern University.

 

Why are you resigning?

In short, I can’t work at a medical school where my dean is allowed to censor the work of his faculty in the name of the hospital brand’s welfare. See my letter of resignation for details. For more background, you can see this blog post about what happened to our medical school to turn my work into a “branding” problem, and also:

 

Have you been receiving support for your resignation?

Tons, and I'm very grateful to everyone who has offered it. To read two essays about it, you can see Geoffrey Stone's "Academic Freedom and the Meaning of Courage" (Prof. Stone is the dean of University of Chicago's Law School and lead author of the Chicago Statement on academic freedom) and Craig Klugman's "The Price of Academic Freedom."

 

Where can I see the article that your dean gave the order to censor after publication?

You can find the entire "Bad Girls" issue of Atrium, including Peace's censored article, here. If you wnat to read just Peace's article, go here.

 

How did you manage to stay quiet about the censorship so long when you had a major book coming out on academic freedom?

It wasn’t easy, but I was worried about my program colleagues’ jobs. I’m still worried about that.

 

Was this an impulsive decision?

Hardly. I spent over a year thinking about resigning because of the problem of being asked to work for a dean who was allowed to censor my work if it upset him or the hospital. I consulted with dozens of people to try to figure out the best course of action. I tried again and again to get Northwestern to quietly fix the problem internally, as I mention in my resignation letter. I am disappointed I was unable to talk them into doing the right thing.

 

What will you do next?

Continue my work as an historian of anatomy, as a writer, and as an (im)patient advocate. I’m fortunate that the work I do requires very little resources and does not require a university affiliation.

Among other work I’ll do this coming year, I’m co-editing a book for Cambridge University Press with Françoise Baylis of Dalhousie University called Bioethics in Action. It is set to contain 12 first-person accounts of people trying to fix specific ethical problems in medical practice and medical research. I’m also writing an Amazon Kindle “single” (short e-book) for parents on talking to their kids about sex, to answer all the questions I’ve had since I live-tweeted my son’s sex ed class this past April. (More on my writing on sex ed is here.)

I’ll continue being the ethics consultant to the NIH-funded Translational Research Network for clinics that serve families with children born intersex/differences of sex development (DSD), run out of UCLA. I’ll also continue to co-chair, with David Sandberg of the University of Michigan, the DSD medical education committee for the Association of American Medical Colleges. (That group is working on improving medical education nationally so that children and families with DSD will be much better treated in clinics.)

I’ll also keep writing essays and op-eds, as I have been doing for places like Pacific Standard, The LA Times, WIRED, Slate, New Statesman, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Chicago Tribune.

I’ve also got a large number of talks lining up this year around the country related to Galileo’s Middle Finger, and as that book comes out in paperback in the spring, I expect that the follow-up work with folks wanting me to talk about that work will continue to be pretty intense. The book has been getting stellar reviews.

I have a few other major projects in the midst of starting up, too, and I’m looking forward to those, as I think they’re going to lead in a few years to really wonderful books—books that will be very different from the previous ones, but of a lot of interest to people who care about science and democracy.

 

Aren’t you worried economically?

No. I’m very fortunate that way.

I was promoted to full professor at Northwestern University a few years ago, but I have remained there a part-time, non-tenure-track faculty member, and to be honest, the take-home pay at this point from that job is nothing my household will miss. I make more money from writing and speaking than I do from that job, and I have no doubt that the time I’ll gain from not doing that job will actually earn me at least as much income as I’m walking away from.

In addition to my own income, by mutual and explicit agreement, my mate functions as a financial patron to my work so long as I follow his dictum to “do what matters, not what pays.” My mate, Aron Sousa, MD, just became interim dean of the medical school of Michigan State University (MSU). He really loves serving the people of Michigan and taking care of his faculty, patients, residents, and medical students, but he’s also often stuck in a lot of dull meetings necessary to that job. It makes him happy if at the end of the day his job has supported my varied and socially-meaningful work. (If you know P.G. Wodehouse, you’ll know why we joke about Aron funding Milady’s Boudoir.)

I did once have a normal job, at MSU (that’s how we ended up there—Aron followed me). At MSU, I achieved tenure a year early on the clock. Then I had a kid, and realized how hard it would be to do motherhood the way I wanted to do it and also do all the work I really cared about. So I leaned out.

What do I mean? I elected in 2004 to give up my MSU job, tenure, and a lot of money in order to have a more interesting life doing history, writing, patient advocacy, and motherhood. The Northwestern job was kind of an accident, taken on after I had already quit MSU. I had a great decade at Northwestern, and I think made the most of using their resources in the service of the disempowered and the wronged. I don’t regret taking that job. But I also recognize that I don’t need it, and I can’t work in a place where my dean thinks he can censor the work of the faculty. Feeling like I have my integrity has always given me more strength than any academic affiliation ever could.

I've taken a number of big leaps in my life: I dropped out of college at 19; at 28, I decided to marry a guy I'd just met a few weeks before; at 38, I gave up tenure. I have a feeling this leap will turn out just as well as the rest of those did. I'm looking forward to finding out.

 

Journalists, please note:

A few news articles have incorrectly stated that Dean Neilson wanted to have "portions" of Bill Peace's essay removed. That is not the case; it was the whole essay that was the subject of Neilson's concern. Also note: the whole "Bad Girls" issue had already been published in early 2014 when Neilson gave the order. It had already been mailed out on paper to thousands of Atrium subscribers and had been put up online, as was the practice of the journal. So because Neilson's order came after publication, only the online version could be pulled (and was). My letter of resignation has more details, and this article explains the background of Neilson's branding concern.