by Lori Andrews
What do George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton, Meryl Streep and Wendy Wasserstein have in common? As incoming freshman to Ivy League universities, they were required to pose nude for photographs. The goal of the project was to correct students’ posture—and to correlate posture with later life achievement. From the Ivy League, the practice spread across the country until a female freshman at the University of Washington in Seattle challenged it. In 1968, the program was abandoned, under criticism it was eugenic.
I attended Yale after the demise of the notorious photo program. But when I read about U. Cal Berkeley’s recent plans for its incoming freshman, I realized Berkeley officials hadn’t learned the lesson of the posture program. Rather than requiring nude photos of their students, Berkeley officials were planning to peer at students’ DNA. Indeed, they were opening the door for sensitive genetic information to be made available about our future leaders–their current students.
The Scope of the Berkeley Program
Last summer, 5,000 incoming students at University of California, Berkeley received a surprise along with the packet of information about their freshman year. Their admissions packet contained an item that looked like a Q tip and an invitation to swab the inside of their cheeks for genetic testing. The targeted genes were involved in breaking down lactose, metabolizing alcohol and absorbing folic acid.
The program came under criticism from lawmakers, bioethicists and even the California Department of Public Health. Now Berkeley has significantly cut back the program. What lessons should Berkeley officials learn from this experience?
Lessons to be Learned
1. In the quest to be avant garde, don’t forget the basics
Berkeley officials seem to have been caught up in the novelty of the program. “Science is moving so fast right now,” said Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for the college’s undergraduate division. “If we assigned them a book, it would be out-of-date by the time they read it.”
Think hard about that comment. Parents are spending up to $40,000 a year to send their children to Berkeley. In most of their courses, students will be assigned books to read. It would not be unreasonable for parents to ask, is it really worth $160,000 for my child to get an obsolete education? Why don’t I just get a quickie genetic profile done on my child an put him or her in a job best on the genotype?
2. Take responsibility for the well-being of your students
Years ago, psychology professors routinely required their students to be subjects in experiments as part of their course requirements. Now the Code of Ethics for psychologists forbids this sort of coercion of students. But Berkeley’s “offer” to students, although presented as voluntary, was itself coercive. “The consent form for the project is pure marketing,” Jeremy Gruber, the president of the Council for Responsible Genetics told California lawmakers at the August 2010 hearing on the program. The form listed speculative, unproven benefits of the testing, but none of the risks.
The genetic testing program was replacing the “one book” program to give students a common experience to discuss. A student entering Berkeley might feel compelled to swab rather than risk ridicule by others or marginalization by not participating. Or worse yet, by saying “My parents wouldn’t let me send in my DNA.”
And what happens when the students started discussing the results of their tests? Would those who were poor metabolizers of alcohol be left behind when others went to the local bar? And, as Boston University public health professor George Annas asked, would those who had genes related to alcohol tolerance feel they could drink to excess?
3. Look closely at conflicts of interest
According to the consent form for the project, the students DNA sample would “become the property of the University” until its destruction and the university would “save the data for future teaching purposes and for possible publication of the aggregated data and its analysis.” Such an approach makes one wonder if the project is being undertaken for the students’ benefit or for that of university researchers. Indeed, the professor behind the program had formed his own genetic testing company last year.
There was also to be a writing contest where the winning students would have a chance to win further genetic testing from 23andMe, a private company that offers DNA profiling. But should a public university be endorsing a private company? “The FDA and Congress are currently investigating this type of testing, described as ‘snake oil’ by a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at a recent hearing, also described as ‘not ready for prime time’ by the Centers for Disease Control,” Gruber said at the California hearings.
4. Check the legality of what you are doing
Berkeley planned to do the genetic testing in one of its university labs and provide the individual results to the students. But its labs had not complied with state and federal requirements, such as the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act, which cover any lab that provides a medical result back to a consumer. These laws are designed to ensure the accuracy of the test results. The university argued that it was not providing medical information and thus was not covered by the laws. But that argument was just not credible, given the university’s position that this information could be useful to students in planning preventive measures.
Ultimately, Berkeley backed off of its program when the California Department of Public Health warned that the plan to have students’ DNA samples analyzed at an uncertified lab would violate state law. Now, instead of offering individual test results to students, it will only post aggregate results.
Berkeley’s Poor Marks
The Berkeley administration deserves poor marks on how they handled the program. In fact, they seemed to have flunked psychology (with a coercive program), law (not complying with statutes), biology (by not acknowledging the limits of predict
ive value in the tests they were offering), ethics (creating a potential conflict of interest) and history (not applying what had been learned from posture photos debacle). Perhaps now they’ve learned the lesson that the use of genetic tests needs to be analyzed and contextualized–which, after all, are the hallmarks of any great college education.