No religion, no job? Humanist professor files EEOC complaint against KU Med on grounds of religious discrimination

Fred Whitehead is tired. And wearing a tie and a corduroy jacket on a warm April day doesn’t add to his comfort level. He rubs his eyes; Whitehead reads a lot. A longtime humanities professor at the University of Kansas (KU) Medical School in Kansas City, Kan., he is more used to intellectual struggles than disputes with school administrators. But he might lose his job of 22 years.

Whitehead is an associate professor of family medicine at the medical center. He administers the rural preceptor program, a pairing of student doctors with practicing physicians around the state. It’s a clinical course that gives students hands-on experience in dealing with patients from various backgrounds. “A free thinker” is how Whitehead describes himself — a person with no ties to a particular theology. He also says he’s an atheist.

His real religious goal, Whitehead says, is to integrate humanities with science to round out the medical school education. And he’s been rewarded for just that. “I was promoted (from teaching associate) to associate professor last July,” he says. “Years after colleagues in similar situations were promoted, I decided to ask for a promotion due to my contributions to medical education at KU and to the understanding and teaching of science in Kansas.” The promotion came after a rigorous peer review.

Then, late last year, medical school Dean Deborah Powell notified Whitehead that his annual contract with KU Med would not be renewed after June 30, 2000. In a letter dated Sept. 30, 1999, Powell told him he would be terminated but gave no reason. Whitehead says he asked Powell personally for written reasons for termination and then sent her written requests. Powell never responded to those requests but, Whitehead says, did tell him that his appointment would not be renewed due to financial changes and because his research did not fit the medical school’s mission. However, Powell did not object to Whitehead’s promotion last year.

He says his job is being sacrificed to save the KU Office of Medical Education, whose $15 million, three-year grant ends this year. The office, previously known as the Office of Medical Education Support, was established to support the medical center faculty by channeling resources from outside the medical field into the curriculum. KU Medical School administrators have decided to keep the office open and within the existing medical school budget. The funding stream for his job, Whitehead believes, will be used for a position in the office, which was formed under Powell

Whitehead has appealed his termination with the Steering Committee of the KU Faculty Assembly, which after several delays set a hearing for May 9 on Whitehead’s appeal. The deadline for a hearing is May 21, 16 weeks from when Whitehead initially filed his appeal. The American Association of University Professors is also investigating Whitehead’s case.

“I decided to file the (faculty assembly) appeal based on academic freedom,” he says. “It is a major precept of the university that a professor and researcher have the full freedom to research and publish the results, depending of course on how well he performs his other academic duties. I have had no complaints about the way the preceptor program is handled — or my other work. But I have an anomalous position at the university, and they say they can’t justify it anymore.”

Dorothy McGee, Powell’s assistant, says the dean will not comment on Whitehead’s case.

Whitehead also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on March 29. In the EEOC complaint, he stated that the administration showed prejudice against his religious beliefs in favor of other beliefs. The complaint lists his religion as “free thinker” and states that his termination, in taking away his academic freedom, violated his religious freedom. The EEOC has yet to respond to Whitehead’s complaint.

Some professors at KU and other state universities also believe that part of the problem with Whitehead’s $37,000-a-year position is that it doesn’t fit into the corporate-style administration of modern universities, where top administrators receive six-figure salaries to lead their institutions.

“Universities have turned into corporations where the bottom line is student credit hours — more hours means more funding,” says Emporia State University biology professor John Richard Shrock. “Meetings of administrators making decisions are stockholder meetings, about money and not about the quality of courses and education. They seek to keep the students as long as possible for the best possible profit line.”

Of the 100 highest-paid Kansas state employees, 75 are KU professors and administrators, according to an April 16 article in The Wichita Eagle. Even so, those highly paid profs comprise only 4 percent of the entire KU faculty. The average wage for a KU professor is $58,000, near the bottom of the salary range for American state universities. But of those 75 KU faculty members, the article states, 53 are employed by KU Medical Center and all 53 make more than $138,000. Powell is third on the list, with a 1999 income of $264,256.99, 23.9 percent of which comes from privately funded grants. Despite the number of KU Medical Center employees on the top-paid list, KU Medical School’s average compensation of $69,800 lands it in the bottom 20 percent of American medical schools.

At 56, Whitehead is six years from retirement. His career has been impressive. Whitehead was a Fulbright Scholar to University College in London in 1966, earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Kansas and master’s and doctoral degrees in English from Columbia University in New York City in 1972. From 1975 to 1978, he worked as a welder at a Kansas City, Kan., company. During those years, he pursued his research in his off time, and in 1978 KU Medical School hired him.

As the medical center’s resident humanist, Whitehead has sought to make sure medical students receive a well-rounded education. “The idea is that medical students need to realize they are dealing with real people, who are in social and economic situations,” he says. “Doctors are not automatons dealing with disease-bearing organisms.”

Whitehead has organized and sponsored conferences, seminars, panel discussions, and monthly brown-bag lectures on topics from the history of modern medicine to the debate over evolution and creationism. He has drawn from literature for some events, including using Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” as a case study for clinical depression. He has also researched the lives and work of famous Kansas scientists from as far back as 1854, when the Kansas territory was formed. His job, Whitehead says, is to give future doctors a deeper understanding of the history and philosophy of science, of the development of modern medical science, and of the human side of their patients and other scientists.

Whitehead has published more than 80 works in scientific and literary journals, which include New Letters, University of Missouri-Kansas City’s literary journal. He has written, contributed to, or edited 19 books. Whitehead has also organized community and state programs to bring the medical school into direct contact with the public. He has lectured widely on medical problems Kansans face; for example, a recent lecture discussed pulmonary diseases lead and zinc miners in southeast Kansas contracted in the 19th and 20th centuries. “It’s tough to have contributed so much and then to be so unceremoniously discarded,” he says.

University of North Dakota English professor Robert Lewis is editor of North Dakota Quarterly. Whitehead is a contributing editor to the journal. Lewis served on the University of North Dakota Medical School Advisory Committee, where he sought to sensitize medical students to their patients’ human struggles.

“In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a nationwide movement to bring the humanist view to medical school curricula,” Lewis says. “At the time, doctors were sensitive to criticism that students were well trained in science but did not know how to deal humanly with their patients and colleagues. This was particularly true at the time of the AIDS outbreak, when many doctors and nurses decided they would not treat AIDS patients, which was a dramatic illustration of the importance of social responsibility. I think it is still important. (Teaching the humanist viewpoint) took, and still takes, a minimal amount of time and was considered a desirable modification to medical school curricula. Our medical school, and most around the country, have such programs.

“I find it ironic that a year after a promotion, Fred is being dismissed. As far as I know, the mission of the medical school hasn’t changed.”

Lewis believes Whitehead’s populist orientation and ability to communicate well with people outside the university offended “conservative people at the university or the state legislature. He does not seem to think so. But North Dakota is similar to Kansas in that it is agricultural and conservative politically and socially. I would be happy to be told his dismissal was not political in any way. But looking for other explanations, I don’t see anything,” says Lewis. “They can hardly argue he wasn’t up to snuff, particularly after they promoted him after an unconscionably long time at introductory rank.”

Shrock says Whitehead’s importance goes beyond his work for the medical school. Shrock edits Kansas Biology Teacher, a magazine for the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers and for which Whitehead writes a monthly column. The association includes 280 of 780 Kansas elementary and secondary science teachers, and most state science-teacher associations include only 10 percent of science teachers. Shrock believes that this figure is partially attributable to Whitehead’s significant contributions to the understanding of teaching science to Kansas children.

“His articles are written in an extremely lucid way,” Shrock says. “They are accurate; the writing is clean. He does not talk down to readers, and he is very interesting. This is important because the next generation of college students and science teachers will use what Fred passes on. He takes scientists’ biographies and translates them well into what teachers and students can use. That is exactly what we need. Someone can be doing great research, but it remains in an ivory tower unless those discoveries are made known.

“That … is part of the problem with evolution. With evolution, we have a group of people who have been only casually acquainted with science — enough to make them dangerous, to make them understand the populist appeal of creationism. Whitehead has the ability to explain evolution so people can understand it. Right now, we have critics of creationism who talk down to and ridicule creationists. That is more dangerous than the creationists themselves; the critics lend the creationists credibility. Whitehead, on the other hand, is dangerous to creationists because he can communicate with people the way the creationists can.”

Whitehead only alludes to the creationism/evolution debate in conversation, stating that he believes a moral and religious climate at the university has contributed to his dismissal more than controversy outside the university. But he says a creationism/evolution conference he sponsored last year brought him significant grief.

“Monkey Business in Kansas: The Rational Approach” took place at KU Medical Center Nov. 5 through 7 and was sponsored by the humanist groups Center for Inquiry-Midwest and the Campus Freethought Alliance, as well as Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines. The conference featured noted evolution advocates Paul Kurtz, Amanda Chesworth, and Robert Price. The event culminated in a panel discussion and debate at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. In the days preceding the event, Whitehead says, he had to fend off resistance from the director of academic support and a KU vice chancellor so the event could go forward.

“It was notable that the university often has events sponsored by religious groups,” says Whitehead. “Then, suddenly, there was a problem with scientists’ discussing what they believed to be an important issue in Kansas — the creationism/evolution debate. But this is part of a larger pattern of discrimination the university has displayed over time.”

Despite having been at KU Medical Center for more than 20 years, Whitehead does not hold tenure. This fact affects his course of action in appealing his dismissal. While Whitehead’s annual contract stipulates that Powell can terminate his contract simply by not renewing it, Whitehead says, he can appeal non-reappointment based on a policy laid out in the faculty handbook, a catalog of faculty rights and responsibilities. Whitehead also says he deserves an explanation, although that isn’t stipulated in his contract, because of his long-standing appointment to the university.

In his appeal before the faculty assembly, Whitehead stated, “In terminating my contract in the manner she did for the reason stated, Dr. Powell abrogated my academic freedom and put in jeopardy the institution of academic freedom at the university at large.”

The freethinker/academic freedom issue is grounds for an EEOC complaint, Whitehead says. Widely overlooked in an age dominated by Christian moralism, he says, free thought has been given short shrift as a belief system.

“Free thought is not only being an atheist, which most people believe it is,” he says. “The framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were freethinkers who were deists — people who believed in God but also in the Enlightenment idea that God allowed humans to have free will and determine their own destinies.” Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson are examples of well-known deists who were integral to the formation of American independence and government, men who distinguished between the affairs of God and the affairs of man. “The ability to practice religion of choice was important to that because one man or one group will believe differently from another,” Whitehead says.

At the same time, free thought has been important to science, freeing scientists from religious dogma to question what they think and see and to develop and test hypotheses that explain phenomena. Some famous Kansas scientists were freethinkers, including Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, and Logan Clendenning, a physician for whom the KU History of Medicine Library is named. Clendenning was a contemporary and friend of Sinclair Lewis, a social critic and author. H.L. Mencken was also a friend of Clendenning with whom Clendenning often discussed intellectual history.

“Free thought means simply the freedom to pursue a line of thought or logic without fearing the repercussions of looking in those directions,” Whitehead says. “You just don’t put people off because of their religious or philosophical beliefs.”

KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway doesn’t think Whitehead has “a legitimate claim” with his EEOC complaint. “I think you always want to have medical students to be educated as well as can be,” says Hemenway. “But the pressures from managed care are creating such financial hardship for medical centers, and they are looking everywhere to keep costs down. The medical center and the departments used to be subsidized from clinical revenues. That is not the case any longer, and the net result is financial pressure on the medical school. The question becomes how to deliver a medical curriculum as efficiently as possible. If you have the choice between training someone to take out an appendix and something less critical, you make sure that appendicitis is taken care of.”

Contact Patrick Dobson at 816-218-6777 or

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