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April 1998
Editorial: What's Up With NYU?

By Martin Rowe


Last year, Philip Furmanski, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at New York University, sent an e-mail memo to members of the Biology Department concerning "a resurgence of activity among animal rights groups focusing on NYU," and in particular on the construction of a laboratory which will conduct experiments on animals on the top floor of the Main Building at NYU. In the memo, Furmanski said that one of the organizations, SEAL or Students for Education and Animal Liberation at NYU, was "attempting to directly recruit students and will be holding meetings and probably protests on campus from time to time." Furmanski advised fellow faculty members to "keep a low profile." For, he argued, "there is little to no awareness of the presence of animals [in laboratories] at Washington Square and we want to keep it this way. Even the construction on the roof [of Main Building] is intended to be just another 'biology laboratory'." He continued: "If any students approach you regarding this issue, the response is that we do everything that is legally and morally required to assure the health and well-being of any animals.... Above all please try to be discreet and take care to keep the profile of any animal usage as low as possible."

This memo found its way into the hands of Jonathan Weintraub, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at NYU, who brought it to the attention of authorities at a town hall meeting on November 20th. Weintraub vociferously demanded that the University begin an open dialogue on the subject. After a few minutes of discussion, the meeting was abruptly halted by the presiding official. A week or so later, Weintraub was charged with disrupting University proceedings and interfering with others' rights and told to appear before a University tribunal. The tribunal finally decided last month to suspend Weintraub for a semester, but not impose the punishment unless, ran the ruling, "Mr. Weintraub is found, through a University disciplinary process, to have violated a code of conduct or policy applicable to New York University students."

Spot the Extremist

The disruption of one meeting by a perhaps obnoxiously insistent student might not be important news were it not part of a larger problem at New York University--and no doubt other universities--about how to handle the issue of animal experimentation and those who oppose it. In New York University's case, recent history is littered with cases where, to place Dean Furmanski's assurances in perspective, the welfare of the animals and the complaints of those who have questioned their treatment have been ignored.

A few years ago, NYU sold the chimpanzees that had been used at their biomedical research establishment in upstate New York to the Coulston Foundation (TCF), an institution cited for numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and against the recommendation of the veterinarian who had looked after the chimps. The veterinarian, who had recently visited the Foundation, had been "amazed to find extensive noncompliant conditions." The transfer of the last remaining 20-odd chimps to TCF was halted last year, when Weintraub and other members of SEAL took over the NYU President's office and refused to move until the primates were sent to a sanctuary.

Previous to this, Jan Moor-Jankowski, cofounder of NYU's biomedical research establishment known as LEMSIP (Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates), had been summarily dismissed from his post after he cooperated with authorities in stopping the experiments of Ron Wood at New York University. Wood had been addicting primates to crack cocaine and depriving them of water; although it was the latter not the former activity which constituted one of the violations of the Animal Welfare Act for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined NYU $450,000.

In all this, NYU has acted--to put it mildly--with an imperious disdain for their employees, their own statutes, or the sensibilities of others. Moor-Jankowski is suing both NYU (for unfair dismissal) and the USDA (which he says failed to provide him with his legal protection as a whistleblower). Far from acknowledging the severe reservations detailed in the report from their own veterinarian, only a few weeks later NYU's Board of Trustees sent a hundred chimpanzees and $2 million to the Coulston Foundation and praised TCF's "high level of preventive and veterinary care in a modern and efficient setting." Two chimpanzees died shortly after arrival. When the students took over the NYU President's office, administration officials threatened suspension and expulsion. And when Jonathan Weintraub was brought before the tribunal, his lawyer accused NYU of numerous violations, which are worth citing: "ignoring its own deadline for 'informal resolution' of the allegations; holding a purported 'settlement' meeting at which University officials lacked authority to resolve the matter; later offering onerous and unduly harsh terms that would permit any of a range of University officials to suspend or expel Mr. Weintraub without any right to challenge such a punishment; allowing only 21 hours for Mr. Weintraub to consider the proposed 'settlement,' thus obviating negotiation and requiring that he reject the proposal; making an advance ruling, in contravention of University rules, that at the hearing counsel cannot cross-examine witnesses; [and] prohibiting a transcript of the proceedings."

NYU could have asked Professor Moor-Jankowski about handling procedures. Moor-Jankowski, as he admits, is no "animal lover." But, "[chimpanzees] are sentient beings," he has said, "and they deserve their fair share." He is, to a degree, willing to engage in debate with animal rights advocates; he complained about lack of funding for animal care at other universities, and even published a letter from Shirley McGreal of the International Primate Protection League in The Journal of Medical Primatology, of which he was the editor. This last action led to a seven-year court case when he was sued for libel by an Austrian pharmaceutical company. It also led to the withdrawal of financial and moral support by scientific and medical groups.

Bad Interpretation

As to the memo that began this recent ruckus, Dean Furmanski has expressed regret that it "caused a lot of unnecessary anxiety and a lot of unnecessary difficulties." He denied there was any attempt at deception, and that he had not meant to keep the issue from students. He thought the memo had been interpreted badly, and that there was "little to no awareness of a lot of things that go on...not because there's anything bad about them, but simply because there's no reason to have them publicized." "It's also not something that one necessarily parades around," Furmanski said. "I don't necessarily want to wave a flag...and raise sensitivities unnecessarily."

I find it hard to believe that even Dean Furmanski believes that the last few years of fines, procedural violations, dumped reports, heavy-handed punishments, not to say employment of a researcher convicted of breaking the law and the firing of the man who helped expose him, is all a matter of bad interpretation from people with over-refined sensibilities. What this is about is how universities fear exposure of how they spend people's money and the emergent recognition that their experimental subjects are not agar plates but, in Moor-Jankowski's words, "sentient beings."

Why send a memo drawing people's attention to a subject when the point is not to draw attention to the subject, unless there is a recognition that the subject is not only volatile but potentially morally questionable and financially costly? And why not engage in the kind of open-door policy favored at LEMSIP rather than preach but not practice a gospel of serious debate and open-forum discussion? Is it perhaps fear that any attempt to do so would see the pharmaceutical and medical research companies withdraw in the same way they did from Moor-Jankowski?

Own Medicine

Both Beth Gould, the publisher of Satya, and myself are alumni of NYU. The University was generous with me, and now--in its continual fund-raising letters--expects me to be generous with it. But it is hard to be generous to a university that treats dissent, particularly among is own students, with such heavy-handedness; that has to pay the largest such fine for a university because it employs a man like Ron Wood whose experiments are immoral and scientifically useless; that dumps its chimpanzees at a foundation run by a man who calls AIDS "a silly disease"; and that ultimately thinks that the fundamental moral questions about our relationship with the other-than-human world and our responsibilities to our fellow animals are just an unnecessary anxiety or difficulty.

Ironically, NYU's biggest public relations disaster could be its biggest opportunity. It could establish meaningful dialogue on this subject; it could offer ethicists and those outside the monied cloisters of the scientific community a say in what goes on in laborataries by establishing impartial and rigorous animal care committees to make sure someone like Ron Wood never works at NYU again. It could mandate medical students to take courses in the ethics of animal experimentation; it could start funneling alumni contributions towards a scientific foundation for alternatives to animal research. It could stop experimenting on animals.

What it cannot do, however, is continue to hide. For Jonathan Weintraub is only one of an increasing number of people who are demanding not only some accountability for how money is spent at universities but an end to the increasingly less--but still shamefully--secret world of experiments on animals.

Martin Rowe


New York Observer, 1/19/98, 2/2/98

Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/12/97, 1/20/98, 3/13/98

New York Times, 11/11/97, 11/12/97

Washington Square News, 4/24/97, 9/30/97, 11/11/97, 11/2/97, 11/25/97, 11/26/97, 1/21/98, 3/3/98

Scientific American, September 1997


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