Feinberg magazine’s future in question after controversial essay

Madeline Fox, Summer Managing Editor

A bioethics magazine edited by Northwestern faculty may stop publication after a censorship dispute with the University.

Digital issues of the magazine Atrium were pulled offline after Feinberg School of Medicine administrators raised concerns about an essay in the magazine’s Winter 2014 issue describing the author’s experience of a nurse performing consensual oral sex on him after he was paralyzed at age 18. Although other issues of Atrium were later restored online, the Winter 2014 issue, entitled “Bad Girls,” remained offline until May 2015.

The essay, entitled “Head Nurse,” was written by Syracuse University professor William Peace, who said he anticipated some controversy when he submitted the essay.

“I was not surprised that the essay was controversial — I anticipated that there would be a small population of bioethicists and readers that would be upset,” Peace told The Daily. “I did not think that it would cause such a giant controversy, that it would take down the entire issue for 14 months and maybe the magazine permanently.”

Additionally, the Feinberg dean’s office instituted a new editorial committee consisting of representatives from the office and public relations staff to review the magazine before publication, said Alice Dreger, a Feinberg professor who guest edited the “Bad Girls” issue. But Dreger said the faculty who are in charge of the magazine oppose this move, saying they will only continue publishing if they can do so without oversight.

“Atrium has always been really edgy,” she said. Dreger, who said she was “not new to controversial work,” made headlines earlier this year when she live-tweeted a sexual education class at her son’s school.

“Whenever I edit stuff, I don’t edit it because it makes me comfortable or because I agree with it,” Dreger said of editing the censored issue of Atrium.

Dreger said she spent the more than a year between the magazine’s publication and its posting online talking to administrators at Northwestern and within Feinberg in an attempt to have the issue posted online, and finally told them she intended to publicize that the magazine had been censored, which she said she believed was what drove them to finally post the “Bad Girls” issue.

“After 14 months, the only thing that moved them is PR fear,” Dreger said. “If PR fear is what drives them as an institution, that’s sad.”

Feinberg declined to comment on Dreger’s allegations or the removal and reinstatement of the magazine’s issues.

While Dreger was talking to administrators, she consulted with Geoffrey Stone, a First Amendment lawyer and professor at the University of Chicago, about how to address the University’s actions with regards to the magazine. Stone later published a piece in the Huffington Post about what he referred to as the University’s “siege” on academic freedom.

“In principle, there is nothing wrong with an advisory board for a university publication,” Stone told the Daily in an email. “An advisory board that considers the academic quality of proposed publications is commonplace and appropriate. An advisory board that considers other factors, such as whether a proposed article might offend donors to the institution or expresses views that the institution does not want expressed, would constitute censorship that is incompatible with academic freedom.”

Dreger, who recently published a book about academic freedom, said she had had a positive experience with the University in the past when she tackled controversial issues, but cited Northwestern Medicine, a collaboration between Northwestern Memorial Healthcare and Feinberg that was formed last year and employs more than 900 of its faculty physicians as the source of branding concerns leading to greater scrutiny.

“I’m off brand, I’ve always been off brand, but part of the reason Northwestern hired me is because I’m off brand, because I do socially important work,” Dreger said. “Until this administration at the medical school, my academic work has been protected.”

University Relations declined to comment.

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