Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bush Official: Ask IRB Before Speaking in Public Park

Diane Auer Jones, U.S. assistant secretary of postsecondary education in the George W. Bush administration, believes that professors should seek IRB permission before giving political speeches in public parks.

Since October, Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, has been floating the idea that indebted students and graduates might sign a pledge not to make further payments on their loans once one million debtors had signed.

Jones is currently vice president for external and regulatory affairs for the Career Education Corporation, whose business model apparently consists of persuading students to take out government-backed loans by exaggerating their job prospects on graduation. Angered by Ross's ideas, she wrote in her blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education website that "it is time for NYU to take action to silence Andrew Ross." She included a link to a video of Ross speaking in Washington Square Park, near the NYU campus.

When Ross (a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom) replied that his views are protected by academic freedom, Jones dismissed the idea. "If Dr. Ross wishes for his call to default on student loans to be covered under the umbrella of academic freedom," she wrote, "then I would ask to see the written consent he received from his IRB to engage students in this experiment in cultural studies."

Jones's post reveals her to be as ignorant of the regulations governing human subjects research as she is contemptuous of academic freedom. She claims that "Academics--or at least the agencies that fund their work--do not believe that the right of academic freedom trumps the rights of individuals who may be harmed, either directly or indirectly, by the scholarly pursuit of knowledge, no matter how well intentioned that research might be."

In fact, 45 CFR 46.111 specifically instructs IRBs not to consider "possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research (for example, the possible effects of the research on public policy) as among those research risks that fall within the purview of its responsibility," thus disregarding the indirect harms of the pursuit of knowledge. And I doubt that even the country's worst IRB office would consider Ross's speech in a public park to be research under the Common Rule.

Still, it's noteworthy that when Jones sought a weapon with which to silence a professor, the first rhetorical cudgel at hand was the IRB.

[h/t: Roberto Veloso]

Note. Jones's second post may contain the seeds of a stronger argument when she asks, "does [Ross's] academic freedom free him from financial obligation for the damage he is inflicting?" That seems to suggest she thinks Ross liable for tortious interference in the contract between debtor and lender. I don't know if that's a good argument, but it's got to be better than the human-subjects claim.

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