Harvard Medical School Retracts Media Policy

Responding to student opposition, HMS pulls restrictive student policy

In response to student opposition, Harvard Medical School is backtracking on a recent policy that would restrict student interaction with the media, school officials said yesterday.

Following the policy’s addition to the student handbook this fall, several students on campus suggested that the policy was an attempt to silence their opinions on the recent conflict of interest debate.

Over the past several years, student groups have been pushing for stricter policies to regulate industry ties at both the Medical School and at its affiliated hospitals. Tensions between the administration and a small group of vocal first-years mounted last year, intensifying when students took their campaign to the New York Times and publicly challenged the Medical School with mixed success.

Now second-year students David C. Tian and Kirsten Austad, who have been lobbying administrators for tighter conflict of interest policies, wrote in a joint e-mail to the Times that “it is hard to imagine that this new policy is not somehow related to the past advocacy efforts of students.”

In light of this negative attention, the Dean for Students, Nancy E. Oriol, said in a statement that the school temporarily pulled the policy from the online version of the student handbook, “because it has been so completely misconstrued.”

She added that “students are unequivocally free to talk to anyone at anytime,” Oriol was not available for an interview with The Crimson yesterday, but told the Times on Tuesday that “the wording is problematic and it doesn’t really capture our intent.”

Oriol, however, did not deny that the policy was drafted in response to student attacks earlier this year on the influence of pharmaceutical companies on medical education.

In an e-mail circulated to the Medical School community on Aug. 25 detailing revisions to the student handbook, the policy addition reads: “All interactions between students and the media should be coordinated with the Office of the Dean of Students and the Office of Public Affairs. This applies to situations in which students are contacted by the media as well as instances in which students may be seeking publicity about a student-related project or program.”

Though news of this particular addition likely slipped the attention of most students—as it was sandwiched in a long list of other revisions—several students and faculty protested the policy’s implications.

“Last time I checked, being a student did not diminish my rights,” said Brian S. Fuchs ‘04, a third-year medical student. “It’s something I’d expect from a medical school in Iran, not Harvard Medical School.”

But at the same time, Fuchs said that he did not think the administrators actually intended to suppress the student body’s right to freedom of speech despite the policy’s wording.

“I find it hard to believe that the administration is opposed to students voicing their opinions,” Fuchs said. “I went to Harvard for college and am here for medical school, and I have never felt that they were really trying to get in the way of what I said.”

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.