After three rocky years under the leadership of bioethicist Glenn McGee, faculty members at the Alden March Bioethics Institute (AMBI) at the Albany Medical College are breathing a sigh of relief that he was sacked. For McGee, however, the battle to preserve his storied reputation—and his six-month severance package—has just begun.
"The feeling at AMBI is that this has been a very difficult time," says Bonnie Steinbock, a University at Albany, State University of New York, philosopher who teaches a reproductive ethics course for AMBI. "But we are going to survive, we are going to move on."
McGee, 40, who was fired as head of the institute and lost the John A. Balint Endowed Chair on May 14 but remains a tenured professor there, has sued the Albany Medical College (A.M.C.) for allegedly failing to officially recognize the severance package that it offered him and that he accepted by signing and returning the proposal two weeks later, the Albany Times Union reported last month. In his complaint, filed by the law firm Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna in Albany County Supreme Court, McGee says that the college agreed to pay "his salary and benefits through December 31," at which point his "employment would be terminated."
McGee confirmed in an interview with the Times Union that he had been receiving his paycheck as promised, but complained that the college had failed to officially recognize the agreement by returning a countersigned final copy to him. The college declined to comment because of pending litigation. McGee did not respond to multiple e-mail and telephone requests for comment from ScientificAmerican.com, although someone using his name referred to the phone calls in comments on an earlier story.
According to McGee's filing, the college gave him the boot because he "was ineffective as a manager" and the subject of several employee complaints. Since his departure, his suit alleges, he "has been forbidden from going to the bioethics department" and has been "prevented from speaking to colleagues and students."
Interviews with current and former faculty members suggest that at least two of these complaints were from employees he directly supervised. Officials at the Albany Law School also complained after McGee allegedly made disparaging comments about a faculty member. In addition, questions have been raised about McGee's romantic relationship with the director of graduate studies, Summer Johnson, who resigned last month. McGee told the Times Union that A.M.C. president James Barba assured him that his relationship with the junior faculty member did not violate school policy.
In the aftermath of his dismissal, two prospective employees have also come forward with accusations that he misled them about potential jobs at AMBI. He allegedly promised paid faculty positions that never materialized to bioethicists Linda MacDonald Glenn, an adjunct professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and Rebecca Feinberg, consultant for the Boston Medical Center. As a result of his alleged empty promises, Glenn says that both she and Feinberg ended up doing work for AMBI for which they were not compensated. What's more: both still lack the professorships that he reportedly offered them.
"The rule switched in the middle of the game," Glenn says. "I am disappointed because I certainly admired and respected [McGee] and thought of him as a friend—and thought I could trust and believe him." Beginning in January 2007 Glenn says she traveled to Albany more than half a dozen times to work with AMBI staff members on grant proposals that would supposedly fund her salary. When these staffers resigned last year after clashing with McGee, she says, Glenn struggled to clarify her position and obtain the grant money to fund it. Glenn says that McGee told her in October that her 'standing appointment' had been approved and led her to believe that she would become a full-time faculty member at the Albany Medical College this past spring.
In fact, after teaching a course for three months without receiving a paycheck, she discovered that she was merely a contract worker. She recently wrote a letter to interim AMBI director Vincent Verdile, dean of AMC and executive vice president of health affairs at Albany Medical Center, and Director of Graduate Studies Henry Pohl seeking clarification of her status, culminating nearly two years of efforts to come on board.
Feinberg—who has degrees in law, bioethics, and biotechnology—could not be reached for comment. But according to Glenn, Steinbock and other Feinberg confidantes, she moved from Boston to Albany to conduct her own research and to assist McGee—without pay—with his upcoming book on autism. "I am delighted to announce the arrival of visiting faculty member Rebecca Feinberg, who joins AMBI for the summer and possibly fall," McGee wrote in an e-mail to AMBI faculty members on April 28. Feinberg agreed to do the pro bono work, colleagues say, because McGee assured her that she would soon become a full-time faculty member. When Feinberg recently inquired about her status, school officials allegedly told her that they had no record of her as a once or future employee.
"She's currently not on our faculty," A.M.C. spokesperson Nicole Pitaniello told ScientificAmerican.com today. "It is our understanding that she has expressed interest in being a faculty member." Pitaniello explained that it is possible to teach in AMBI's online master's program without being an Albany Medical College faculty member, but to become a visiting, adjunct or full-time professor requires "submission and a formal process that is reviewed by the appointments, promotions and tenure committee."
In an interview with ScientificAmerican.com last month, McGee claimed that the college had dismissed all of the complaints against him. He alleged in the court documents that the college failed to respond to his requests for "human resource training," for faculty and staff, and failed to assist McGee "in holding those faculty members accountable." He also alleges that the college gave him "conflicting instructions as to whether and how to terminate subordinate faculty members." The college would not comment on the veracity of his claim or the status of complaints against him.
Earlier this month someone identifying himself as McGee apparently raised the ire of several Wikipedia users as he struggled to defend McGee's reputation on the site. A user from the Albany area, who repeatedly identified himself as Glenn McGee, noted on the discussion pages that he "identified retaliatory and inaccurate edits on [a] biographical page for myself" and eliminated a reference to the "provocative use of 'controversy'" regarding his departure. He also replaced a hyperlink to a lengthy June 16 Scientific American.com article about him with an earlier, brief account of his departure. With respect to McGee's apparent modifications, Wikipedia user "Xymmax" noted, "Some of the details here make the article sound more like a curriculum vitae than a neutral biography."
Last week, the user using McGee’s name balked when the community proposed deleting his biography altogether, because he was not sufficiently notable: "It is pretty obvious that this academic serves on more commissions, editorial boards, and has been in more national and international media than most any academic, let alone of his age, and is widely recognized as a leader in bioethics, itself the fastest growing academic field."
On June 26, AMBI announced that it would no longer be the headquarters for The American Journal of Bioethics, the journal McGee co-founded, and that AMBI's online site would no longer be located at the "bioethics.org" Web address, which is registered in McGee's name. According to McGee's recently updated information on the AMBI Web site, he is now the John A. Balint Endowed Chair Emeritus and the director of the iBioethics program in New York State.