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An Unethical Ethicist?

Was questionable behavior behind the abrupt departure of Alden March Bioethics Institute's chief?

When Glenn McGee founded the Alden March Bioethics Institute (AMBI) at Albany Medical College in New York State in 2005, magazine articles and newspaper stories hailed the arrival of the man once described as "Socrates with a beeper." Now, a month after his abrupt departure, former colleagues are painting a complex portrait that suggests the ethicist's own personal and professional relationships may have led to the institute's undoing.

McGee remains a tenured professor at AMBI, and neither he nor college officials will discuss the circumstances surrounding his change in status. Former colleagues, however, say the institute began to unravel shortly after his arrival when Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., severed its longtime educational partnership with AMBI's parent medical school and as disillusioned faculty—accusing the ethicist of everything from forgery to spreading insulting rumors—left.

McGee's rise to academic and media prominence came at a time when bioethicists were increasingly in demand to comment on high-profile medical cases such as the one involving Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed in 2005 after 15 years in a persistent vegetative state. The idea of "Socrates with a beeper" would make some bioethicists cringe but McGee, a 40-year-old Texan with two iPhones, appeared to crave the spotlight. He counts himself lucky to have published his first book, The Perfect Baby: A Pragmatic Approach to Genetics, in 1997* just when scientists in Scotland announced they had cloned Dolly the sheep—and ethics experts were in hot demand to weigh in on the controversial procedure. "I believe that talking to the public is a good thing," McGee says. "Are [some bioethicists] bothered by that? Of course, they are."

Other ethicists, however, applauded McGee for raising the profile of their growing field. "He's certainly one of the most important bioethicists of his generation," says Autumn Fiester, an ethicist and former colleague at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics in Philadelphia, where McGee served as associate director for education for nine years before taking the Albany position.

McGee had a knack for being ahead of the game, launching a bioethics Web site back in 1994. The site today is the blog for the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB), which McGee co-founded in 2001 with David Magnus, an ethicist at Stanford University. In this unusual journal, articles submitted for consideration were posted to a private forum online for member comment; the article and all discussion about it would then be published in the print issue. It provided a trendy alternative to the more established The Hastings Center Report, published by the nearly 40-year-old Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., which is considered to be the most influential journal in the field. The old-school Report did not launch its own Web site until two years ago.

"I took some big risks from a career standpoint," AJOB editor in chief, McGee, says of his efforts to modernize and promote the field, "that obviously made me some friends and enemies." He and his co-editors apparently stoked a rivalry between their fledgling journal and the venerable Hastings Center Report by comparing the number of times bioethicists cited each publication in their various journal articles. McGee does not deny this, noting that "when you have two journals in bioethics that overlap in audiences, you are going to have some competition."

Prior to McGee's arrival at the institute, ethicist Robert Baker headed a bioethics masters program at Union College jointly run with Wayne Shelton at the Albany Medical College. A.M.C.'s own ethics unit, the Center for Medical Ethics, Education & Research, was founded in 1994 by John Balint, an A.M.C. physician and researcher who had just returned from an ethics fellowship at the University of Chicago. He no longer led the program, but the university provided funds for a new director, who would be named to the "John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics."

When Baker contacted McGee, the latter had just suffered a professional blow: He had been denied tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, home to one of the nation's most prestigious ethics programs. Eager to move on, he packed up and headed to Albany to be director. Soon after he got there, he persuaded the administration to change the center's name of to the New York Bioethics Institute, boosted its Web presence, and began developing relationships with faculty at the Albany Law School and other colleges in the region as he had vowed to do. A.M.C.'s Shelton soon vacated his office in the center and moved to a nearby building. (Both he and Balint declined to comment for this article.)

"Glenn got here and everyone was really excited," says Alicia Ouellette, an Albany Law School ethicist and lawyer who once directed AMBI's health law and bioethics program. "We were told, 'This is a star.' He's got a lot of energy, a lot of ideas, and he seemed to bring with him all kinds of resources." Ethicist Sean Philpott, who worked closely with McGee until February 2007 when he stepped down as AMBI's associate director, describes his former colleague as "intently driven," noting that when Philpott first arrived, McGee would sometimes burn the midnight oil.

But according to interviews with a number of former colleagues, McGee also began ruffling feathers almost as soon as he set foot in Albany. Just months after his arrival, he was denounced by editors at the Albany Law Review after they learned that he had apparently forged the signatures of his three co-authors on forms for a paper that he had submitted for publication. The paper was about whether in vitro fertilization attracts parents who wish to genetically engineer their children. Peter Ubel, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, says that he and Andrea Gurmankin, a former Penn graduate student once advised by McGee, told McGee that they did not feel the manuscript was worthy of publication. "There was a kernel of a good idea in there," Ubel said during a recent interview, but "some terrible flaws in the survey data."

McGee, however, ignored their objections: Without their knowledge, he signed their names as well as that of another author (Elizabeth Banger, now a U.S. Army lawyer) on forms granting the journal the right to print it. After it was published, Ubel demanded that the journal issue a correction. The publication eventually removed his and Gurmankin's names from electronic versions and published a correction in the following issue. McGee says he believed that he had "proxy" to sign the other names, and both he and Ubel say the incident may have resulted from miscommunication.

"Outside the world of law, forgery would have never entered the conversation," says McGee, who insists that he has no qualms about the quality of the analysis. Quite the contrary: "To be honest," he says, "it's one of the pieces of work I'm most proud of."

The journal's faculty advisor was less sanguine. "We were upset," says Vincent Bonventre, a professor at Albany Law School. "This is the one incident with McGee in which I had any personal involvement. Obviously, he didn't impress me positively."

***

He's not the only person McGee failed to impress. Some former colleagues complain that, among other things, he also overhyped his resume.

In fact, some of the accomplishments McGee cites on his 48-page curriculum vitae, on Web sites he manages, and in news reports are not quite what they appear at first glance. A press release issued by Albany Medical College announcing his March 2005 arrival notes that he had also just been "named chief of the Office of Bioethics for the New York State Department of Health," a claim that McGee repeated during an interview last week. "When I moved to Albany,'' he told ScientificAmerican.com, "I was named chief of bioethics by the Wadsworth Center" at the New York State health department.

But that's not what the department remembers. "Dr. McGee is experiencing delusions of grandeur," says Jeffrey Hammond, a state health department spokesperson. "Let's set the record straight: McGee was a volunteer, not an employee. He gave himself the lofty title of chief of bioethics and as a volunteer was not compensated for his time."

McGee said his relationship with the department soured after he gave numerous interviews during the controversial Schiavo case. He says that then New York State Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Dennis Whalen called and dressed him down after those interviews. "It was made clear to me," he says, "that it had come down from the governor [Republican George Pataki] that I was to shut up." McGee says he later drew from this experience in a column he wrote in a July 2006 issue of The Scientist, which was critical of governmental bioethics commissions. Hammond says that state health officials also "have no recollection of a meeting between him and then Deputy Commissioner Whalen." If any message was conveyed following his media appearances during the Schiavo case, Hammond says, it would have been that volunteers and staff should not independently discuss or represent their views as state policy.

In the column, McGee said that he still had his official ID stating that he was the state "chief of bioethics". McGee offered to fax the badge to ScientificAmerican.com, but said that he could not locate it at his home during a phone conversation and also said he was not willing to drive into work to find it. It has yet to be received.

In another instance, McGee claimed that he had turned down a job at a university where officials say one was never in the offing. In a May 2007 e-mail forwarded to ScientificAmerican.com by Bonnie Steinbock, a philosopher at the University at Albany, State University of New York and an AMBI faculty member, McGee wrote: "I turned down Emory. I'm staying here forever and ever and ever." But Earl Lewis, Emory University's provost, told ScientificAmerican.com this week that "McGee withdrew from consideration in advance of any final decision."

McGee confirmed that he "wrote an e-mail to that effect." He insisted that it was not inaccurate, because he had been in discussions about positions with Emory for years even though they never "materialized to a piece of paper."

In April The Business Review of Albany reported that "McGee could have been a bioethics director at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., or at Wake Forest University in North Carolina," but instead "picked Albany." However, according to Mark Hall, a Wake Forest law professor, the University interviewed McGee in 2005 but did not make any offers or fill any positions that year. McGee told ScientificAmerican.com the article may have been wrong about those claims although he has not asked for a correction. He says now that the Washington position would have been as a "congressional bioresearch ethicist" rather than a director, and he maintains that Wake Forest asked him to delay his decision to come to Albany for "a couple of days," but he refused. Robin Cooper, the Business Review reporter who wrote the piece, says he stands by the story and that it was based statements that McGee made in an interview.

Steinbock believes that such misunderstandings may stem from McGee's overeagerness and inflated self-image. "There have been times when McGee has insufficiently distinguished between what he intends to accomplish and what has actually happened," she says. In fact, she adds that McGee had discussed his interest in getting her an adjunct professorship in the Albany Medical School's ob–gyn department around 2005 and, much to Steinbock's chagrin, that affiliation was soon listed on the Alden March Web site before the paperwork was properly filed.  McGee took down the affiliation at her request, and Steinbock received final approval last month.  Steinbock says she has often chastised McGee about his tendency to stretch the truth, but has, at the same time, always kept cordial relations with him.

In response to criticism of his overzealous promotional efforts McGee says, "I will be the first to admit it, I sell my people. I have a good faculty and staff. If it sounds effusive to you, that's probably the Texas thing," he notes, referring to his upbringing in Waco. But he adds that "What's not true is that I will heap false praise on someone in the interest of advancing the institution or myself."

***

Many mark the turning point at AMBI as the moment when the joint master's program in bioethics fell apart without warning just a year after McGee's arrival, in 2006, forcing dozens of faculty members to choose between Robert Baker at Union College, and McGee. The two leaders—juggling the concerns of the administration—were unable to come to agreement on matters ranging from resource allocation, personnel recruitment and governance. Union College is now partnered with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "Since we couldn't live together, we divorced. Like individual divorces, there are a few messy details," Baker wrote in a recent e-mail to Scientific American. "I have no comments about these details."

McGee says that, "We were put in a difficult position by administrators who weren't bad people but who had a different vision of money." He adds, "I came to Albany to bring things together and here I am—because of a couple hundred thousand dollars difference—and there are two master's programs."

Baker says at the time of the split there were 33 students in the joint program: "Thirty chose to remain at Union, three chose AMBI." The latter school's numbers have since risen to 27.

Albany Law School professor Alicia Ouellette, who tried to work with both programs until late last year, says the split was "unfortunate," noting that it "didn't seem like it was necessary."

As the partnership unraveled, McGee became increasingly upset at colleagues who chose to sever ties with AMBI and remain with Baker's program at Union. Sean Philpott, AMBI's former associate director, recalls being in the office when McGee had a heated discussion with Timothy Hoff, a professor of public health at the University at Albany who no longer wanted to be affiliated with AMBI and had circulated an e-mail expressing his disappointment at the breakup. Hoff declined to comment for this article.

Philpott says he stepped down as Alden March's associate director in February 2007, after just nine months, and severed his affiliation with AMBI and the American Journal of Bioethics in November 2007, because of a series of personal disagreements with McGee and disappointment with the way McGee characterized some of their collaborative research during a provocative seminar McGee gave at Albany Medical College. In recent months, Ann Willey, director of laboratory policy and planning at the Wadsworth Center, and John Kaplan, a physiologist at the college, also severed ties with AMBI, according to colleagues.

"The anger in it was hurtful," McGee says of the split, but he denies that he yelled at Hoff or any other AMBI faculty members. "What sort of advantage would one glean from yelling at people one would want to keep on one's faculty?" he says. "The last thing in the world I was going to do was screech and scream at people when they wanted to work with one program or another."

The final straw may have been McGee's romantic involvement with a junior faculty member—a relationship that might have violated medical center policy. McGee is currently going through what he calls "an acrimonious divorce" and ScientificAmerican.com confirmed with the Albany, N.Y., county clerk office that divorce papers were filed in court earlier this spring.

In late 2006 Summer Johnson, now 27, completed her PhD in public health from Johns Hopkins University. She was hired at AMBI as an entry-level assistant professor in medical ethics and to help the institute gain certification for its newly independent masters program. Months after her arrival, she was promoted to graduate studies director—second in command at AMBI—through a process that some on the search committee questioned. In an e-mail Ouellette sent to McGee and the rest of the search committee, she wrote, "I am uncomfortable making [the hiring] decision before the search committee has met even once to define the criteria for the candidate who would best serve the institution." Bonnie Steinbock, who sat on the search committee, forwarded this e-mail and McGee's response to ScientificAmerican.com, and they were verified by a second search committee member.

In his e-mail response on February 25, 2007, McGee denied that decisions would be made without a meeting and proceeded to make a persuasive case for Johnson and an accelerated hiring process.

There is no evidence that McGee and Johnson had a romantic relationship when she was promoted last year, and Johnson says that prior to coming to Albany they had only met briefly at a conference in Washington, D.C., in 2006. The couple, however, became engaged shortly after McGee departed as director on May 14, according to several current and former AMBI faculty members, including Elisa Gordon, an Alden March core faculty member who recently congratulated Johnson on her engagement to McGee when they saw each other at the institute. At the time, Johnson confirmed that she was engaged to McGee and showed Gordon her diamond engagement ring. McGee and Johnson refused to comment on the status of their relationship.

The events that led to his departure seem to have been set in place on April 18, when a professor affiliated with A.M.C. told the administration that McGee's relationship with Johnson was inappropriate and detrimental to the master's program, according to the informant.

Johnson handed in her resignation on June 11 as both director of graduate studies and assistant professor of medicine. Johnson claims that after McGee's departure, "The students were going to figure out that the institute they were getting their degrees from was really now vaporware." She says she wanted to explain her concerns to the frustrated students but was prevented by Albany Medical College officials and told to "champion the program." On June 5 she came up for her annual review and was offered "a large salary increase." Johnson says: "I'm not a salesperson, that's all I really have to say."

In a June 12 letter addressed to AMBI graduate students that was obtained by ScientificAmerican.com, Johnson wrote that A.M.C. required her to make "misleading" representations. A.M.C. would not comment on her claims.

In a separate letter sent to graduate students that same day, Albany Medical College dean, Vincent Verdile, wrote that "I want to extend to you my appreciation of your understanding during this period of transition for the Bioethics Institute." Henry Pohl, vice dean of academic administration, will now be overseeing graduate education for the institute. A.M.C. officials would not verify the signed letter, a scanned copy of which was forwarded to ScientificAmerican.com by a professor affiliated with A.M.C.

Still, McGee is not without his champions. One is John Lachs, McGee's dissertation advisor in the philosophy department at Vanderbilt University, where he received his PhD in 1994. When asked during a telephone interview if he was concerned about his former student, Lachs replied: "Glenn is not someone about whom you get concerned.  He is so talented and so smart he is always going to land on his feet."

McGee's new office sits near Wayne Shelton's, outside the institute's headquarters, and next door to the television studio McGee had the University install when he arrived. "I wouldn't deny that there have been times when I have rushed ahead," McGee says, "when in retrospect I should have slowed down." But the ethicist denies that he crossed any ethical lines.

"There's blood in the water now," McGee wrote in an e-mail that Steinbock received on Thursday and forwarded to ScientificAmerican.com. "I have enjoyed Albany but clearly I'm not going to be around here much longer—and even more clearly, having spent my literal last dollar on lawyers and divorce, and now labor law, I am going to be entering a new phase of my career in which I am a dartboard."

*Correction (7/3/08): The book and publication date originally cited in this sentence have been changed.

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