ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Lessons Learned From UCI's Crisis

The UCI fertility center crisis is proving to be at least the equal of past reproductive technology controversies in Orange County, namely, the bitter custody battles over surrogate parenting. But in the emerging details, the controversy involving the Center for Reproductive Health shapes up as an important case study to inform future relationships between private profit-making ventures and public university campuses.

Legislative sessions opened in Sacramento this week amid accusations from the Assembly Higher Education Committee of an "astounding" lack of oversight on the university's part. The legislator who is turning out to be Orange County's grand inquisitor in this year of bankruptcy, Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), dropped by to question the university's very motivation even in trying to set wrongs right.

But the university, however it may ultimately be graded on oversight, gave a reasonable accounting before the legislators of lessons already learned. There was an acknowledgment from Executive Vice Chancellor Sidney Golub that there was a lot riding on having credibility in new medical research ventures like the center. He correctly identified the importance of public trust, affirmed the value of faculty integrity and acknowledged that "some rules will be flouted because there will be those who flout the rules for personal gain." There was a candid assessment from Frederic Wan, UCI vice chancellor for research, that the crisis had "exposed a loophole in our system."

The university has already sought to contain the damage and rectify matters by cutting its ties to the clinic, and it has put three doctors on leave from the faculty, as well as accusing them of transplanting eggs without permission and using patients in research without their approval, among other things. A letter from whistle-blowers, which prompted UCI to launch a full-scale inquiry, has surfaced detailing allegations, most of which have been corroborated by a three-member clinical panel appointed by UCI. In recent days, various investigations into the clinic have broadened.

Moreover, despite Hayden's concern, an official from the National Institutes of Health credited UCI with responding promptly by requiring researchers now to submit regular reports on all research projects they are working on.

This case raises many questions about the relationship between profit-making ventures and public universities. Not all will be answered immediately, but this example can and should prompt new attention to governing oversight of such ventures, and to better address profound ethical and moral questions that arise from new technology.

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