Mayo Clinic threatens to fire professor for comments on COVID treatment, men in women's sports

"While seeking legal protections afforded to educational institutions, Mayo is operating like a for-profit business venture controlling its employee communications with the public," lawyer says.

Published: June 23, 2023 11:03pm

The Mayo Clinic has several hundred "active projects" funded by the National Institutes of Health across its three locations, totaling over $440 million. But the premiere U.S. hospital now appears concerned about a professor's comments potentially closing that federal spigot.

The Rochester, Minn.,-based nonprofit academic medical center's concern is about a professor of anesthesiology who studies "exercise physiology," and whose research lab has been "continuously funded by the NIH since 1993.

Its College of Medicine and Science gave the professor, Michael Joyner, a one-week unpaid suspension and preemptively denied him future salary increases for talking to the media about a disfavored COVID-19 treatment and the inherent athletic advantage of males over females regardless of cross-sex hormones, according to its March 5 disciplinary letter.

Joyner will be fired if he does not '[d]iscuss approved topics only and stick to prescribed messaging" and "eliminate use of idiomatic language" that has harmed the organization's "brand and reputation," states the letter, referring to his media interviews that riled Mayo's public affairs team. 

A wide range of academics and academic freedom groups have warned the private institution that it's violating its own academic freedom promises, endangering the Mayo Clinic's reputation – U.K.'s Daily Mail jokingly called it the "Mao Clinic" – and risking a lawsuit and perhaps its college's accreditation.

NIH committed "bureaucratic rope-a-dope" with its "wet blanket" refusal to recommend convalescent plasma to immune-suppressed COVID patients, which would make it more widely available, Joyner told CNN in January. He was the principal investigator for a federally funded study of the treatment.

A year ago, he told The New York Times, in a profile of biologically male transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, that testosterone is the "800-pound gorilla" that gives males an advantage over females starting in the womb but especially after puberty. 

The metaphor offended Rochester Pride Chairperson Jennifer Winter, who tweeted at Joyner: "were you intentionally trying to be transphobic by invoking imagery of a giant gorilla when talking about trans women in sports?" The Mayo Clinic is a Rochester Pride "gold sponsor."

Joyner's remark about NIH "sheds light on a negative and unprofessional pattern of behavior" going back to his comments about sex and athletic advantage, which were "problematic in the media and the LGBTQI+ community at Mayo Clinic," also states the disciplinary letter, referring to his November meeting with the Personnel Executive Committee about "your use of language viewed as inflammatory in this context."

The letter also includes unspecified allegations of "bullying" colleagues, one of whom "has asked to not work with you anymore because of your behavior." 

Joyner's lawyer, Kellie Miller, told Just the News she redacted a paragraph of the letter that referred to "an unrelated 2020 disciplinary matter" about Joyner's request for "additional compensation for increased responsibilities" as he worked "tirelessly on research related to the covid-19 pandemic."

She declined to share the documents in his appeal, which is due June 27, but shared her April 13 demand letter to Mayo Chief Legal Officer Joshua Murphy on condition it not be published.

Shortly after the Times interview, several of Joyner's colleagues gave him "complimentary notes ... including the head of women’s health and Chair of the Department of Medicine at Mayo in Florida," the letter states. "So as not to politicize his scientific research, Dr. Joyner declined a follow-up interview request from Fox News."

Before and after that article's publication he followed "internal protocols and debriefed" with public affairs, which gave him "no indication" of concerns. After the complaint about the "gorilla" metaphor, "Mayo cancelled all Dr. Joyner’s interview requests," Miller wrote.

On the eve of his October presentation on "Sex Difference and Human Performance" at Endocrine Grand Rounds, Joyner got an "urgent and panicked email" from the secretary to Personnel Committee Chairman Abimbola Famuyide that questioned the talk's "timing" and – for the first time – cited "concerns" about "unprofessional statements" he made on the subject. 

The secretary instructed him to "avoid the added commentary that could be perceived as offensive or disrespectful to this patient population."

Joyner "immediately" sent his lecture slides for review but received no response, and a month later Famuyide declined to detail the "unprofessionalism" allegations, the letter states.

He followed public affairs protocols for the CNN interview and received "no reservations" from that office, but Mayo administrators complained the next day without giving him "formal notice of alleged policy violations."

Department Chairman Carlos Mantilla told Joyner at his March performance review he would receive a "simple reprimand," which Mayo rejected in favor of the serious punishments, the letter also states.

Miller cited Mayo's accreditation by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which last year joined a statement in support of academic freedom in response to legislation to limit or ban the teaching of critical race theory.

She also noted its court victory over the IRS last year to be taxed as an "educational institution," which let Mayo reclaim more than $11 million in paid taxes.

"While seeking the legal protections afforded to educational institutions, Mayo is operating like a for-profit business venture controlling its employee communications with the public," Miller wrote.

Five years ago the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Marquette University, also a private entity, deprived its contractually promised academic freedom to a conservative professor, the late-John McAdams, with a similar punishment.

"Many state supreme courts have yet to hear a similar case, so we think the Wisconsin ruling should be very persuasive at private schools in other states as well," Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, told Just the News. 

The civil liberties group is leading a pressure campaign against Mayo Chairman Michael Powell, a former FCC chair, and it sent April and May warning letters to Mayo.

High-profile physicians including Harvard Medical School's Jeffrey Flier and Yale's Nicholas Christakis signed a petition to Mayo, led by Michigan State's Nigel Paneth, that insisted Joyner "did not exceed the limits of his expertise" or claim to be speaking for Mayo. 

His statements to the media "were well within the mainstream of the range of scientific opinion on topics in which he is expert," they said. "These Mayo administrative actions will lead to concerns that the public statements of Mayo doctors are intended to support Mayo’s reputational and business interests."

The Academic Freedom Alliance, which is funding Joyner's legal defense, also noted the IRS victory in its June 7 warning letter.

Morey told Just this News this might be a "roundabout way of suggesting" its College of Medicine and Science is not meeting Higher Learning Commission accreditation requirements.

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of writers group PEN America, told CNN that Mayo's complaint about the professor's "idiomatic language" is "idiosyncratic" and "counter to the spirit of policy that purports to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression."

Mayo Clinic spokesperson Andrea Kalmanovitz provided Just the News a lengthy statement rebutting media coverage. 

It did not punish Joyner "for statements he made about transgender athletes" but "for treating coworkers disrespectfully and for making unprofessional comments" about the NIH regulation, she wrote. 

His 2020 discipline, redacted by Miller, was based in part on giving Mayo a 48-hour "ultimatum" that he would stop his work on convalescent plasma if it didn't give him "an up-front seven-figure payment or a percentage of funds he claimed he was generating for Mayo," Kalmanovitz said.

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