Psychology professor Meg Upchurch’s Bingham-Young Professorship examines a wide range of issues involving both legal and illegal drugs
by William A. Bowden
When psychology professor Meg Upchurch began her Bingham-Young Professorship entitled Drugged America more than two years ago, her stated goal was “...to cause members of the Transylvania community to look drug use in the face, to see how widely it affects their local institutions and their world, and to introspect on whether a future in which drugs play such a wide role is truly desirable.”
After a well-planned series of presentations by Transylvania faculty members and outside speakers, seminars, film screenings, and classroom discussions, it’s safe to say that for those who took advantage of the opportunities her professorship offered, Upchurch’s mission was accomplished. The professorship concluded with the end of the 2009-10 academic year.
“There is probably not one person on campus who has zero experience with drugs, so we all have something to say,” Upchurch said. “I wanted to hear from a variety of viewpoints, and that’s just what happened. I was very pleased with the participation by the Transylvania community, especially the summer seminars where we involved faculty and staff talking together.”
The wide-ranging professorship included such issues as the accuracy of research funded by pharmaceutical companies, how international relations and economics are affected by illicit drug trade, the beneficial effects and potential drawbacks of psycho-active drugs, and the role of drugs in the treatment of mental illnesses in children.
“Drugs can be discussed at every level of analysis, from their molecular effects on the body to their impact on global trade,” Upchurch said. “They are so pervasive at all levels of society, which makes them an important common topic that touches on many areas.”
The point of her professorship was to examine and shed light on issues regarding drugs. Conclusions to be drawn were both positive and negative, since the proper medical use of drugs has meant great health benefits to millions of people, while the abuse of drugs has brought suffering to others.
“The way Meg handled her topic was very appropriate for a liberal arts college because it wasn’t all about bashing the drug and pharmaceutical industry, it was pointing out the complexity of the situation,” said physics professor Jamie Day, who took part in several of the events. “Like any commodity, pharmaceuticals are a mixed issue—there are great benefits and great abuses.”
The professorship is an outgrowth of the Bingham Program for Excellence in Teaching. The Bingham-Young Professorship includes a stipend and an appointment of one or two years. Its purpose is to stimulate curricular enrichment and/or enhancement of the art of teaching at Transylvania.
A variety of viewpoints
Upchurch’s definition of drugs was broad enough to cover licit substances like alcohol and tobacco, illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin, and prescription medications that range from painkillers to anti-hyperactive drugs.
One of the ways Day took part in the topic was to co-teach a May term course with psychology professor Mark Jackson entitled Health Studies Seminar that was open to discussing drug use in its broadest perspectives. At the time, Day was chair of the Pre-Health Committee, and many of the students in the class were headed for careers in healthcare.
“We wanted to pull students away from looking only at chemistry and physics and biology and make them look at health in a different light,” Day said.
Upchurch arranged for an epidemiologist from the National Institutes of Health to visit the class. “He applied his specialty to our subject by looking at how drug addiction can spread through society in a similar way to an infectious disease,” Day said. “It was great to have someone in such a prominent position speak to our small group of 15 students.”
Along with attending several other professorship events, Day felt teaching that class helped him realize some of the benefits Upchurch was aiming for.
“I certainly know a lot more about the controversies and the benefits of drug use now than I did previously,” he said. “I’ve thought about it much more deeply than I had before.”
Education professor Amy El-Hindi Trail presented a Frontline documentary entitled “The Medicated Child” that looked at the issue of the diagnosis and use of medications for mental illnesses in children. Drugs such as Ritalin have been increasingly used in recent years to calm children and allow them to take part in normal classroom settings.
“The prevalence of children on medication for bipolar disorder is quite controversial,” Trail said. “Whether or not they should be diagnosed and treated in that way is a big issue, and we cover this in a survey class I teach on instructional and learning theory. One of our discussion points during the presentation was to ask what might prompt a parent to overmedicate a child, such as possibly too much structure in our schools.”
Trail also took part in a summer seminar sponsored by the professorship during which alcohol on the Transy campus was discussed.
“We talked about accessibility and drinking age,” she said. “I feel less access is a powerful deterrent. It was great to have faculty and staff in the same room talking about that issue. As professors, we’re in the classroom, but staff members see the other side of the students in campus life situations.”
Speaking from experience
As a native of Peru, French and Spanish professor Martha Ojeda has personally experienced some of the issues surrounding the drug culture in her own country and, more significantly, that of neighboring Colombia and Bolivia. She tells of how cocaine is but one of 13 alkaloids in the coca leaf and that the leaf’s benign uses, such as tea and medicinal and religious applications, are often overlooked when discussing the cocaine problem and the war on drugs.
For her part in the professorship, Ojeda screened a documentary film entitled Coca Mama that probes the war on drugs and the efforts of the United States government, in conjunction with Bolivia and Colombia, to diminish or eradicate coca leaf production.
“The film shows how if we try to eliminate coca plantations in these countries, the issue becomes complex because in the Indian communities and in the Inca religion, the coca leaf is used in its natural form,” Ojeda said. “There is a great distinction between the plant itself and cocaine, which is a processed substance. Are we doing the right thing when we jail local growers, but don’t go after the traffickers? The president of Colombia is pushing for the legal growth of coca for legitimate purposes. He wants to regulate it, not criminalize it.”
Art professor Jack Girard attended a summer seminar in the program and used the information to have more in-depth discussions with his wife, who is a pharmacist.
“The seminar and the readings gave me a broader, more sophisticated perspective on treatments our students may be experiencing,” he said. “My wife feels that doctors may be too quick to solve kids’ problems with medication. I took the college-campus view we were given in the seminar and expanded it to other parts of our culture, partly though conversations at the dinner table.”
Girard also took a leading role in organizing the screening of The Narcotic Farm, a documentary film about Lexington’s former federal research, treatment, and prison facility for drug addicts. He also arranged to host the film’s creators on campus for a multi-media event about the facility and its history, and a presentation on gender factors in the images of drug addiction. (See Transylvania magazine, spring 2010, page 8.)
The marketing of drugs
Campus nurse Laina Smith participated in two summer seminars that she felt were beneficial in terms of her relationship with students and their use of prescription drugs, and her general awareness of how drugs are marketed.
“When I see a new drug being advertised, I have more of a question mark now,” she said. “I want to know who paid for the research. It’s made me a little more skeptical.”
Smith is aware that some Transylvania students were diagnosed with attention-defict tendencies and arrive on campus with medications such as Adderall. The proper use of those medications can be very helpful, she feels.
“There are some students who would not be able to function in an academic environment were it not for such prescribed medications,” she said. “Are some of those overprescribed? Probably. But in most cases, I feel the benefit outweighs the risk. Most students take them short-term, get involved in therapy, deal with their issues, and then move on.”
Ashley Hinton-Moncer, director of wellness and fitness, also attended both summer seminars. She includes a session on drugs in her Lifetime Fitness course.
“I feel the drug industry has done a lot of wonderful things, but I also feel we use drugs as crutches at times,” she said. “Before your doctor just hands you the prescription pad, why not try eating right and exercising? Meg’s professorship helped me understand the industry better and realize that not everything a company tells you is true. It also reinforced my belief that you can do many things for your health without using drugs.”
Outside speakers contribute
Among the presentations by outside speakers were these three:
David Courtwright, a history professor at the University of North Florida and a specialist in the history of drug use and policy, spoke on “Forces of Habit: Why We Make War on Some Drugs but Not Others.” He contended that we don’t regulate drugs in accordance with their actual danger, but rather in response to social or political pressures associated with minority groups or the size of the industry producing them.
Jeffery Wigand, a former vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, gave a presentation entitled “Insider’s View of the Tobacco Industry.” He discussed his decision to reveal information to the public on Brown & Williamson’s research involving nicotine and its effects on addictiveness in smokers.
John Abramson, a member of the clinical faculty of Harvard Medical School in health policy, discussed the topic of “Our Ailing Health Care System: How to Fix It and How to Protect Your Health.” A large part of his presentation focused on his book Overdosed America in which he argues that corporate control of clinical research and medical practice is compromising Americans’ health and resulting in unnecessary and expensive drugs and procedures.
Biology major Sara Waddell, whose goal is to attend medical school, attended a dinner for Abramson the evening before his presentation.
“I read his book as part of a voluntary discussion group made up mostly of members of Phi Delta Epsilon (pre-health honorary),” she said. “I was pleased with how well he laid out the issues involving drug companies.”
Putting it in perspective
Looking back on her program, Upchurch values the experience and feels the Bingham-Young Professorship plays an important role in the academic life of Transylvania.
“Since I started here in 1990, I’ve seen an increasing interest in making our campus an intellectual community, providing more and more opportunity for cross-disciplinary discussion,” she said. “I think this professorship, regardless of who holds it, has done well with that.”
Trail, who has taken part in the three previous professorships on race, liberal arts, and liberty, security, and justice, also appreciates their value in her academic life.
“These professorships are one of the best features of my professional development,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed every one of them. It’s a profoundly positive effect.”