Dozens of professors protest Mayo Clinic's discipline of a physician who criticized NIH

Dozens of university professors and organizations wrote letters to Mayo Clinic protesting the suspension of a physician who publicly criticized the National Institutes of Health, CNN reported June 16.

On June 15, 33 professors from Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University, New Haven, Conn.-based Yale University, New York City-based Columbia University and other institutions wrote a letter to Mayo Clinic protesting the decision to suspend Michael Joyner, MD.

"Placing academic freedom in jeopardy is certain to tarnish Mayo's reputation among the many who have always thought of Mayo as a beacon of scientific integrity," the professors wrote. "In persecuting one of its most senior and valuable professors, Mayo is sending a terrible message not only to its other faculty, but also to other institutions in academic medicine."

Dr. Joyner is principal investigator on a government-funded study on convalescent plasma. When interviewing with CNN in January for a story related to the study, he said he was "frustrated" with the National Institutes of Health's "bureaucratic rope-a-dope," criticizing the agency's COVID-19 treatment guidelines convalescent plasma and the NIH's hesitancy to make it available to patients.

Dr. Joyner received a disciplinary letter from Mayo regarding his comments to the media and was suspended for one week without pay. The letter warned him that a set of "behavior changes must be immediate and sustained" and failure to comply would result in termination. 

Earlier in June, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Academic Freedom Alliance wrote letters regarding the disciplinary action. The Academic Freedom Alliance called it "a direct attack on his academic freedom."

Dr. Joyner is also under scrutiny for comments made to The New York Times and his alleged mistreatment of co-workers. The disciplinary letter stated that Dr. Joyner "failed to work consistently within Mayo Clinic guidelines related to media interactions" and that colleagues had described "your tone as unpleasant and having a 'bullying' quality to it. One individual has asked to not work with you anymore because of your behavior."

"Mayo disciplined Dr. Joyner for treating co-workers disrespectfully and for making unprofessional comments about the NIH's regulation of convalescent plasma," Andrea Kalmanovitz, a Mayo spokesperson, told Becker's. "Mayo Clinic supports academic freedom, as evidenced by the hundreds of interviews Mayo physicians, including Dr. Joyner, give each year. Dr. Joyner's comments about the NIH did not reflect the expression of a scientific or academic opinion, but instead were an expression of his personal frustration with the NIH's regulation of a therapy he had championed."

Carlos Mantilla, MD, PhD, chair of Mayo's department of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine, told CNN that "this most recent situation sheds light on a negative and unprofessional pattern of behavior exhibited by you for some time. Your use of idiomatic language has been problematic and reflects poorly on Mayo Clinic's brand and reputation."

However, Dr. Joyner's attorney told CNN that "it's pretty clear that use of idiomatic language would be a form of creative expression when discussing his own scholarship and research."

Ms. Kalmanovitz said that "Dr. Joyner's disciplinary action was not issued in a vacuum; it was issued in the context of serious disciplinary action in 2020 that involved overlapping issues related to disrespectful interactions with employees and inappropriate behavior related to Dr. Joyner's work on convalescent plasma. Specifically, Dr. Joyner's discipline in 2020 was based on a finding that he (1) engaged in rude and disrespectful communications with internal colleagues and external partners, and (2) gave Mayo an ultimatum and threatened to stop his work on convalescent plasma if, within 48 hours, Mayo did not agree to give him an up-front seven-figure payment or a percentage of funds he claimed he was generating for Mayo Clinic. The 2020 disciplinary action was unrelated to any of Dr. Joyner's frequent interactions with reporters. Both the 2020 and 2023 disciplinary actions were reviewed and supported by a committee of Dr. Joyner's physician peers, who carefully considered all relevant facts and history before reaching their decision, as is Mayo's standard process. Details of these actions are included in the unredacted personnel records that can be obtained from Dr. Joyner's representatives."

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