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York University rejects chiropractic college

“Senate’s approval in principle has been negated.”

With these words in the Senate of York University on April 26th, 2001, the proposal for an affiliation with the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College (CMCC) expired without so much as a whimper. The six-year nightmare was over.

This was in stark contrast to the divisive and often bitter struggle waged by faculty members concerned about the academic integrity of York University over the past few years. The consensus seems to be that without the intervention of Professors Alcock, Böhme, Jeffers and the author—dubbed the “gang of four”—CMCC would have finally succeeded in securing the academic legitimacy the worldwide chiropractic community has desperately craved over the past century.

Now is the time for post mortems. The most common question people ask at this point is, what finally turned the tide, given that only three years ago this initiative was regarded as a fait accompli?

I wish I could write that senators and faculty at York were swayed by compelling arguments involving scientific and ethical integrity.1 But conversations with a number of professors tell a different story. Each seems to have his or her own reasons for rejecting the association, reasons that are often more political than scientific, even among scientists.

Equally frustrating was the almost complete lack of public support by academics who knew better. Dozens of prominent faculty expressed outrage at York’s chiropractic dalliance in private, condemning the administration for its anti-science initiative and wishing us “all the best.” But when it came to joining the public campaign, the silence was deafening.2

It may come as a shock that there were actually several scientists, largely biologists, who not only approved of the proposal, but also likely counselled and even encouraged the administration to proceed with the affiliation.3 While the biology department would have benefited tangibly from the merger, one might have expected scientists to unanimously disapprove of a proposal so scientifically flawed. Perhaps this illustrates that scientists are as susceptible as anyone else to the temptations of politics.

There is no question that this proposal was first and foremost politically driven. As Canada’s third largest university, York is anomalous in not having a medical school or large-scale health program. In my view, the senior administration at York University in 1994 regarded an affiliation with CMCC as an opportunity to become a “player” in health studies and health policy overnight, particularly since the prospects for securing a medical school were remote. In fact the Associate VP Research was quoted in an international publication as saying that the affiliation was intended more for social scientists than scientists.

When controversy first erupted over this initiative in 1998, proponents of the proposal were forced to defend it publicly, citing the following justifications on various occasions:

a) chiropractic is a licensed, regulated profession in Ontario and as such there could be no question of its legitimacy as a university discipline.

b) chiropractic lacks research maturity because the hegemonous medical establishment has marginalized it for years. Chiropractic today finds itself in an analogous position to conventional medicine a century ago.

c) chiropractic certainly needs reforming, and the best way to do so—and the most socially responsible way—is to bring it into a university environment.

d) chiropractic works.

e) the “buy-in” price of twenty-five million dollars.

Each of these is easily refutable: (a) has nothing to do with scientific legitimacy or the ability to establish a research culture which are essential. For example, massage therapy is licensed and regulated, but no one is suggesting York offer a degree in it (I hope!); (b) is simply inaccurate, though it may sound convincing to some academics for whom everything is political. (c) is entirely irresponsible until chiropractic renounces its anti-scientific practices and attitudes of its own volition; (d) there are no compelling studies that show that chiropractic therapies are safe and effective; (e) since when is academic integrity for sale?

As the gang of four began to draw attention to specific issues of biomedical concern in campus publications and private letters, the administration and senate became strangely silent. Not once did a York official address a single biomedical concern in a public forum. And right to the end, the Senate was adamant that the process had always been open and fair, even though it consistently refused to solicit information from the biomedical community (or from its Faculty of Science for that matter).

York had, however, solicited advice extensively from alternative medicine practitioners! Very curious behaviour from an institution committed to a search for truth in an open and rigorous manner. From the perspective of scientists, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the chiropractic experience was the magnitude of the ignorance of and antagonism toward science. One of York’s most senior administrators and a regular chiropractic patient approved of the proposal because chiropractic “works for me.”

Senior senators renounced Science’s objections to the proposal, accusing scientists of being “unwilling to admit there are other truths,” of failing to recognize that “alternative medicine is the way of the future and we should be leaders,” etc. York’s senior administration also ignored a petition signed by many well-known academics, including two Nobel Laureates in Medicine, asking York to reconsider its actions.

What does the future hold? If the past is any guide, CMCC will seek a partnership with yet another Ontario or Canadian university in a couple of years.4 The “gang” intends to document fully our story so that these institutions can benefit from our experiences.

Finally, it is important to note that while this marks the end of the York chiropractic campaign, a much larger and more important battle lies ahead, a battle in which we are all called to participate. Can there be any doubt that cash-strapped, post-secondary institutions will be wooed in the near future by major alternative medicine colleges—homeopathic, naturopathic, acupuncture, holistic, shiatsu, and chiropractic? “Have money, seek legitimacy. Are you for sale?”

And the moment the first university succumbs to this temptation, society will have taken a fork in the road that leads away from enlightenment.


1 For example, chiropractic continues to lean heavily on its vitalistic roots. Until the community rejects these in favour of standard biomedical paradigms, it should not be offered a place at any research-based institution. And the burgeoning field of pediatric chiropractic is regarded by the Canadian Pediatric Society as entirely unnecessary and ineffective.

2 This was in contrast to the many skeptics who courageously wrote York’s administration to express their concerns. These letters almost certainly had a positive effect.

3 There cannot be much doubt that this support prolonged the nightmare until two independent Faculties, Science (1998) and Atkinson College (2001), unconditionally rejected the affiliation

4 CMCC has been involved in over a dozen (unsuccessful) affiliation attempts with Canadian universities

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