Northwestern University to discipline J. Michael Bailey in secret

[via Christine Burns at Press for Change news]

CHICAGO Illinois - 29th November 2004

Northwestern University Professor J. Michael Bailey is to be disciplined in an unspecified manner, according to letters sent this week to trans women who had complained about his behaviour.

The Professor, whose book "The Man Who Would Be Queen" caused an international furore when published in March 2003, faced multiple complaints from several transsexual women. Many of these contended that he had made them into his research subjects without their knowing or written consent, when they thought he was simply writing surgery referral letters for them. One of the women also alleged that he had had sex with her whilst participating in what she later realised to be a possible research project.

The exact findings of the NWU complaints investigation are seemingly to remain a secret. With a degree of evasion which has stunned US trans observers, University Provost Lawrence B Dumas avoids giving any clue as to what the investigating committee actually concluded after more than a years's deliberation. A letter received this weekend by complainant Professor Lynn Conway is practically identical to those also being received by the women who claimed to have been his unwitting research subjects. It states,

Your July 29, 2003, complaint has been thoroughly investigated, following Northwestern University's established procedures for handling such matters. I have now received the formal report of the committee charged to investigate the matter; and I have taken action that I believe is appropriate in this situation. Consistent with the established procedures pertaining to such matters and general University practice, personnel actions concerning University employees are confidential. Northwestern remains committed to ensuring that research activities involving human subjects are conducted in accordance with the expectations of the University, the regulations and guidelines established by the federal government and with generally accepted research standards.

Professor Conway was quick to condemn the statement: "...it's a kind-of Catholic Church type of "Cover-Up", a retreat into total secrecy about their findings, and from telling the public what they're going to do about those findings."

She adds, "Here we have the elite science establishment simply saying to those were abused by rogue scientists, like the Catholic Church said to those who were abused by rogue priests, "trust us, we've investigated and we've taken care of it"...when in fact they never even looked at the most serious charges."

Although the committee's findings haven't been revealed, it is nevertheless clear that Professor Bailey has not been exonerated. Had the investigating committee found him innocent of the charges made in the complaints, it is inconceivable that they would have passed up the opportunity to say so. Institutions only adopt this kind of tight lipped approach when they are extremely embarassed and hope that the problem will go away. In this case observers say the only logical conclusion they can draw is that the committee DID find Bailey to be at fault, but found the consequences of condemning his behaviour to be overwhelmingly embarassing to confront.

Why might that be?

One good clue lies in the complaint which WASN'T investigated. The allegation of sex with a research subject has not actually been considered by the university's investigating panel, since the first task was to establish whether the woman making the allegation was a research subject or not.

Conway says that by failing to spell out the conclusions of the investigating panel the university hopes to avoid the obligation to investigate this second serious issue, which could continue embarassing them even further.

Moreover, for a university reliant on contentious US Government funding, the "was it research" question is considered by other observers to be highly embarassing in its own right...

Since its publication in March 2003, gender identity experts, trans academics and scientists from many backgrounds have joined in condemning J Michael Bailey's book as bad science and dangerous drivel. In peer review terms Bailey's only fans come from the small clique of eugenically-inspired "bio ethics" researchers, who expected his book to further their stigmatising aims.

At first Bailey claimed it to be a serious science book about his research. When the condemnations started coming, however, he hastily changed tack and claimed that the book was a popular work about his exploits trawling gay bars as part of his interest in the field. Had the investigating committee found that the subjects featured in his gay bar antics WERE research subjects however (ignoring the ones he made up), funders would be even more inclined to think very hard about how he has been spending their money all this time.

Meanwhile, there are still more complaints in the system, regarding further alleged acts of unprofessional conduct, so the professor is certainly not out of the woods yet.

For US-based researchers the refusal of the authorities to state their findings in this case will leave a big question mark over what constitutes "research" with human subjects, and what kinds of human research require informed written consent. This is a very serious question affecting far more than J Michael Bailey's sexploits, and some might have hoped a prestige university like Northwestern to take this opportunity to provide some answers.

For trans people around the world the "non-findings" are a huge disappointment too...

The Latina trans women who just wanted a referral letter and got an unwanted place in a controversial book have been denied a reasonable outcome to their complaint. All they know is that a secret committee looked at their cases in secret and the university's provost reports that they came to a secret conclusion. They are denied the right to know that conclusion or to know whether the sanctions taken are reasonable or not. No reasonable person would describe that as a meaningful complaints process. It is a denial of due process. Nobody knows yet whether, as a result, they will take their complaints to law or not.

For the rest of us, the result is also very frustrating .. in an affair where, above all, people most likely just want to see closure. Many may choose to read between the lines and deduce that the moral victory has already been won in any case. The University would not have hesitated to say if it believed that J Michael Bailey was innocent of the allegations made. The only reasonable conclusion, therefore, is that he is considered at least partly culpable. Some might be disappointed not to know the disciplinary outcome -- a loss of tenure, a fine, a written warning? Who knows? That's speculation.

What we DO know, however, is that other complaint allegations still have to be heard .. the issues are so serious that they still remain confidential .. and that this is a story which will continue to play out for months (if not years to come) .. so watch that space over there.

- Christine Burns

Additional information

For more on this matter, please see the report by Lynn Conway.

For additional background information, please see the BBL Clearinghouse at this site or Lynn Conway's J. Michael Bailey Investigation.