University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s response to the Legislative Auditor’s review skirts the heart of the findings and, in doing so, risks losing the university’s opportunity to regain public trust.
The auditor reviewed the experiences of Dan Markingson and other human subjects in drug trials in the department of psychiatry. The report found that drug trials had run amok. Conflicts of interest permeated the management of the trials. Vulnerable individuals were urged, perhaps manipulated, into participating in the trials. And some individuals suffered terribly as a result. Kaler’s March 18 response promises specific, immediate actions to correct the flaws in the department’s research protocols.
By putting the camera up close so that only the substantive research issues fall within the frame, the university sidesteps a blunt criticism. The auditor’s report found that the Markingson case raised serious issues — which university leaders have been consistently unwilling to acknowledge.
In the 10 years since Markingson’s death, the university has had two presidents, several medical school deans and several senior vice presidents of the Academic Health Center. When so many different leaders touch a problem, yet there is no change in the management of the problem, we likely have a systemic cultural pattern rather than an individual proclivity that needs correction.
Report authors throw up their hands in the face of this challenge. The report acknowledges it does not have “a recommendation that would change attitudes at the university about openness, accountability, and transparency”; it is up to the university. Consider bringing this concern into the frame, examining closely the dynamics that led to these missteps, telling us what you learn from your self-reflection and what you plan to do. Reassure us that the auditor’s critique has been received, not sidelined, and will be addressed.
Carolyn Chalmers, Minneapolis
The writer is a former director of the Office for Conflict Resolution at the University of Minnesota.