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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University August 7, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 41
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Use of the Johns Hopkins Name

The announcement in April that Johns Hopkins Medicine had collaborated with a cosmetics company marketing a new line of skin treatment products under the name Cosmedicines triggered a public outcry. People asked how a venerable and respected organization like Johns Hopkins could choose to work in an industry that has traditionally sold its products more on image than on substance.

Rather than dwell on the specifics of this relationship, I would like to ask readers to step back and consider what the guidelines should be for determining when Johns Hopkins should enter into a relationship with for-profit corporations in any industry. And when, in particular, should we allow companies to cite Johns Hopkins in any of their promotional literature?

This particular relationship made headline news. But there are other companies that have touted relationships with Johns Hopkins — and it is not clear if in all these situations our name was used in a way that was officially sanctioned by us.

Nor can we expect to exert control in all situations. Even when the university does not allow the use of its name, many of our faculty may nevertheless have consulting relationships with companies. Occasionally a faculty member may endorse a product without compensation, and the company will cite the faculty member's role as a Johns Hopkins professor as a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

There are serious issues here worthy of discussion and debate within the Johns Hopkins community. First among them is how to deal with institutional conflicts of interest. We have developed a pretty effective system to identify and work through conflicts of interest that involve individuals. But mechanisms for identifying and resolving conflicts that involve the university in a relationship with an outside entity are still poorly defined.

In what situations is it proper to allow outside groups to use the Johns Hopkins name? While this might seem easily decided, closer examination reveals that short of a 100 percent prohibition, any other approach involves a lot of subtleties. If our faculty members conduct a study sponsored by the NIH and report findings in a peer-reviewed journal, a pharmaceutical company is free to cite the report (and the Hopkins connection) without any prior approval from the university. On the other hand, if the research is sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, in what circumstances would we allow the company to cite the research, even if the results themselves are not published?

If you ever lived in the greater Boston area, you may have signed up for care with the Harvard Community Health Plan. While this managed care organization was, as I understand it, initiated by Harvard Medical School faculty physicians, many of the doctors, nurses and staff providing the care and administrative support were not Harvard faculty or employees of the university. Was that an appropriate use of the Harvard name?

We had the same discussion when the Johns Hopkins Health Plan, which was providing care in East Baltimore, was sold to an insurance company that retained the name. Would patients expect that they were being treated by Johns Hopkins faculty physicians?

In his book Universities in the Marketplace, Derek Bok, a past and currently the interim president of Harvard, describes the increasing trend toward commercialization of university activities, from Nike endorsements for athletic teams to technology licensing. He believes that the shift in emphasis calls into question the essential purpose of the university and wonders if our historic mission of education, research and service is likely to be compromised by the newer focus on commercial relationships. Having attended this year's NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis, I can attest to how significantly commercial interests have altered the face of Division I basketball.

Over the next few months, the board of trustees and I will be discussing commercialization, institutional conflicts and the use of the Johns Hopkins name. If you have thoughts about any of these important issues, I would appreciate hearing from you.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University. A version of this essay first appeared in Change, a newsletter published for the medical faculty.


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