Tempest in Tallahassee

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At first glance, the maps being passed around Florida State University seem ordinary enough, displaying the streets and school buildings on the Tallahassee campus. But closer scrutiny reveals that familiar school buildings have been renamed. One is identified as “School of UFO Abduction Studies,” others with equally absurd names such as “Big Foot Institute,” “College of Dowsing,” “Crop Circle Simulation Laboratory,” “Dept. of ESP Studies” and “Past Life Studies.” Shades of the paranormal!

The map is, of course, a spoof, created by FSU faculty members angered by the prospects that one of the renamed buildings might actually become a reality. That building is labeled “Chiropractic Medicine,” and the possibility that FSU could become to first public university in the U.S. to establish a chiropractic school has spawned a near revolt.

Hundreds of professors have signed petitions against establishment of the school, some threatening to resign, and 29 of the school’s most distinguished faculty members, including two Nobel Laureates, took a full-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat decrying the proposed new school. Their gripe: chiropractic is a pseudo-science that leads to unnecessary and sometimes harmful treatments, and that embracing it would do irreparable harm to FSU’s reputation.

Never mind that neither the FSU faculty, nor the school’s board of trustees, nor the newly-formed state Board of Governors, charged with overseeing state universities, were consulted. The impetus for the chiropractic school was provided by the Florida legislature At the urging of a state senator who is also a practicing chiropractor, it passed a bill last year authorizing $9 million annually to FSU for the establishment and maintenance of what would eventually become a $60 million chiropractic school of medicine.

Not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth, the FSU administration began spending it. It promptly hired an administrator to oversee planning for the new school and advertised in the Chronicle of Higher Education for a dean to run it. “Usually you approve a program and then there’s funding,” complains one Board member. ”In this case, they got the $9 million first. The cart’s before the horse.” The FSU administration has attempted, as one critic claimed, “to put a fig leaf of scientific credibility on its new acquisition.” School officials insisted that they planned a reformist chiropractic school that would develop “evidence-based treatments'' and reject some of chiropractic's more controversial tenets.

This, say the opponents, is precisely the point. The basic tenet of chiropractic holds — without any scientific evidence — that “subluxations,” or misaligned vertebrae, impinge on spinal nerves and interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses between the brain and tissue cells, thus causing many disorders and diseases. By realigning the vertebrae, some chiropractors claim, they can promote fertility in women, reverse Parkinson’s disease, treat infectious diseases as well as cancer and diabetes, and cure children of bed-wetting. While there is indeed evidence that modest chiropractic manipulation by reputable chiropractors can ease headaches, and back and neck pain, there have also been widespread reports of injury caused by too-vigorous chiropractic manipulation of the spine, and especially the neck.

“The proposed school had an aura of inevitability until a few weeks ago,” says Ron Matus, one of the St. Petersburg Times reporters covering the Tallahassee tempest. But in January, the opposition apparently reached a critical mass, and prospects for the new school have since dimmed. Firing back, the Florida Chiropractic Association has accused FSU doctors of “medical bigotry” and a smear campaign.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the $9 million appropriation into law, seemed to be backing off, explaining that “I did so without a love for building a public chiropractic school” but “to try and bring some harmony in the legislative process.”

Late in January, the FSU trustees, under pressure from both opponents and legislature supporters of the chiropractic school, dodged making any decision and by an 11-2 vote asked the Florida Board of Governors if FSU can continue investigating the proposed school of chiropractic. They were criticized for passing the buck by Governor Bush, who urged the Board to “vote their conscience.”

To reporter Matus, Bush’s directive appeared to be “political-cover-speak” for “go ahead and kill it.” That would leave chiropractic where it belongs, on the fringes of medicine and devoid of any scientific credibility.