As Wash U faces renewed GOP criticism, Anthony Fauci to deliver commencement address


Dr. Anthony Fauci

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert and a medical adviser to seven U.S. presidents, will address graduating students at Washington University School of Medicine in May, the school announced last week.

But the speech by Fauci — who became a figure of scorn among some Republicans for his actions during the coronavirus pandemic as director of the N.I.H.’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — comes as Washington University is under increased scrutiny from GOP officials over a care center catering to transgender children and adolescents.

Three Missouri agencies are currently investigating allegations by a former case manager at the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital that minors were given puberty blockers and gender-transition surgery, often without first providing mental health treatment or properly informing parents of risks. 

The whistleblower provided a sworn affidavit to Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey laying out her allegations. Bailey subsequently called for a moratorium on puberty blockers and hormone therapy at the center, which was rejected by the school and BJC HealthCare, which owns St. Louis Children’s Hospital. 

The news of Fauci’s May commencement address, coming so soon on the heels of the uproar over the transgender center, has further stoked simmering Republican criticism of the school. 

“For a research medical school where you assume everyone is smart, (Washington University) is politically stupid and leadership has no common sense,” James Harris, a longtime lobbyist and GOP political consultant, tweeted Friday. “Horrible timing. Horrible speaker.”

Fauci served as NIAID director from 1984 until he retired in December. He garnered praise for his role in confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but became a truly national figure during the COVID-19 pandemic, where he was the face of the nation’s public health response under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. 

“His leadership in testing and developing treatments and vaccines has saved countless lives in the United States and around the world,” said Dr. David Perlmutter, dean of the school of medicine at Washington University, later adding: “He is the quintessential role model for physician-scientists and exemplifies all the virtues that science has contributed to improving health in our society.”

Fauci also spoke to students and faculty at the university in 2021. 

But in confronting the pandemic, Fauci also became a figure of controversy, especially for those who blamed him for what they believed were heavy-handed government restrictions put in place to help stave off the spread of the virus. Republicans in Congress have vowed to investigate his response to the pandemic. 

The Missouri attorney general’s office deposed Fauci last year as part of its lawsuit alleging the federal government colluded with social media companies to suppress free speech.

“It’s not that he’s polarizing. It’s that he’s a proven liar,” Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who last month testified in support of legislation that would ban transgender children from seeking gender-affirming care, said of Fauci. 

“The idea that an institute of supposedly higher education would bring in an individual that is probably more famous for misleading people than anything else is, I think, atrocious,” Ashcroft said. 

U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt panned Washington University’s decision to invite Fauci to speak.

“I’ll take ‘out of touch bubble of academia’ for $500, Alex,” Schmitt tweeted.

Washington University, a private college in St. Louis, has been in the GOP crosshairs before. 

In 2021, some lawmakers pushed legislation that would have implemented a tax on Washington University’s endowment. The motivation was the medical school’s connection to abortion providers. The bill failed to get traction, though it inspired some of the university’s largest boosters to give to a political action committee involved in contentious legislative primaries last year. 

The university was also the motivation in 2019 for a legislative push to shift the balance of rights and protections in federal Title IX cases away from the accuser and toward the accused. Title IX bars sexual discrimination in education.

The bill fizzled when the Kansas City Star revealed the architect of the legislation was a longtime lobbyist whose son was expelled from Washington University for allegedly harassing another student.

In response to the latest controversy involving whistleblower allegations against the Transgender Center, Washington University leadership has assured state and federal officials they are taking the situation seriously and “establishing additional oversight.”

“We have begun the process of reviewing practices and protocols at the Transgender Center to ensure that we are upholding the highest standards of care in service to our patients and their families,” said Richard Liekweg, president and CEO of BJC HealthCare, and Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin, in a letter to the attorney general’s office. “We are committed to providing lifesaving, evidence-based care that aligns with the standards set by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

The Transgender Center is the only place in Missouri where transgender youth “can access the care they need to ensure their mental and physical well-being,” the letter states. For that reason, “we cannot institute a moratorium that would deny critical, standards-based care to current and new patients.”

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