By Gregory Kohs
Before closing out the old year of 2015, the Wikipedia community was subjected to a last-minute dramatic act by its governing board: the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees. The foundation board voted on December 28 to remove one of its own members, Dr. James Heilman, from their ranks. Heilman, an emergency room physician from western Canada, had been appointed to the non-profit board only as recently as June 2015, with the backing of more than a thousand “votes” from the Wikipedia community of editors. The Wikimedia Foundation reserves three board seats to be filled by nominees from the community, who are “elected” in that sense, but the final installation decision rests with the board.
Heilman has been an active advocate for bringing improvements and consistency to Wikipedia’s sometimes error-prone articles about health and medicine. You would often see his name in the media — The New York Times, BBC, CNBC, The Atlantic, CBC, and others — providing quotes when journalists were covering medical content in Wikipedia.
His ouster from the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) board came as a surprise. Heilman himself announced the axing to the world via a mailing list when the board’s vote against him was complete, and he was asked to leave the meeting. Heilman was very popular with the Wikipedia editor community, so the board’s vaguely-worded non-explanation for Heilman’s dismissal brought on a rising tide of complaints from long-time activists in the Wikipedia cult. Jimmy Wales seemed especially blunt about the dismissal, unofficially pointing out that Heilman was removed “for cause” and expressing disappointment that a more organized announcement couldn’t have been worked out due to Heilman spilling the beans immediately.
This left outside observers, such as Examiner, WikiStrategies, and The Signpost, with only speculation about why the doctor had failed to get a clean bill of health from his fellow directors. Only one board member other than Heilman voted to retain him. A second and final official announcement didn’t really clear up matters. For up-to-date discussion of the intrigue, you can visit Wikipediocracy’s own discussion thread about Heilman’s ouster.
As a thoughtful exercise, readers might be interested to know what has happened in other cases where a person was “removed from the board” of an organization. Wikipedia has 218 articles that mention the phrase “removed from the board”. Most of them apply to board games, where a playing piece is removed from the board, naturally. But many articles do discuss an actual person being removed from a board of governance of some kind. A few articles discuss where someone or a group demanded or petitioned that someone be removed from the board, but were not successful. (Those cases have not been included in this summary).
The removals tend to land in three categories — Politics, Disgrace, and (what a fan of the band Yes might call) Yours Is No Disgrace. Here we go…
* Fred Eisenberger (T–H–L) – Eisenberger was a founding board member for the provincial transportation agency, the Greater Toronto Transit Authority (GTTA) which later became Metrolinx. The Province of Ontario established a new Metrolinx Board of Directors in 2009 at which time Eisenberger and all elected representatives, were removed from the board.
* Francis Scott Key (T–H–L) – Removed from the board of the American Colonization Society, the goal of which had been to send free African-Americans back to Africa. However, its policies had shifted toward abolition of slavery.
* Lucius E. Pinkham (T–H–L) – Removed from the Hawaii territorial Board of Health on April 12, 1908. Not much explanation for this in the history books, but there was a proposal of his for dredging the marshlands of Waikīkī, which although approved, no progress was made under his watch. Also, there were repeated efforts by newspapers in 1907 and 1908 to coax Pinkham into shutting down a brothel district. Within five years, Pinkham was appointed by Woodrow Wilson as governor of the territory, so he landed on his feet.
* August Richter (T–H–L) – In 1866, he was elected to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors; but an 1867 ruling of the Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified the results of that election, and he was one of four members removed from the Board. A new election was held in the fall, and he was elected once more to represent the Second Ward of the City of Milwaukee. In 1869 he was elected chair of the County Board.
* Henry Worth Thornton (T–H–L) – He was chairman of the Canadian National Railways. The cost to modernize the CNR, plus his lavish lifestyle, made Thornton many enemies. When the Conservative Party came to power in 1932, he was forced to resign, denied a pension, and removed from the Board of Directors of a local bank. (Wikipedia notes that he was also the head coach of Vanderbilt’s 7-1 football team in 1894.)
* Syed Ali Nasir Saeed Abaqati (T–H–L) – Another mess of a Wikipedia biography. In 2006 he was removed from the board of Shia college, Lucknow (according to a broken reference link). The Wikipedia article notes: “On 14 November 2010 he and fellow cleric Kalbe Jawad tried to stop the annual meeting of the board of trustees at Shia Post Graduate Degree College because it was being held on a Sunday. The men were taken into preventive custody but were released when violent protests broke out.” And also, “His family is renowned and respected in Lucknow, where his father Saeed-ul-Millat Maulana Syed Mohammad Saeed and grandfather Maulana Syed Nasir-ul-Millat enjoyed much respect in their lifetimes.”
* Lance Armstrong doping case (T–H–L) – In early November 2012, Armstrong cut all ties with his namesake foundation, which was renamed the Livestrong Foundation, after the brand it had used since 2003. The move came after several board members threatened to resign unless Armstrong was removed from the board.
* Atanu Bhuyan (T–H–L) – While the neutrality of this biography is disputed, after derogatory remarks about women (or, as Wikipedia says, “on ladies”) via Twitter and Facebook, Bhuyan was removed from the Board of the Directors of NewsLive.
* Neil Brooks (T–H–L) – He was an Olympic swimmer and co-founder of Nitro Energy Drinks. When Brooks’ business partner Matt Nielson had Brooks removed from the company board in July 2009, Nielsen claimed his six-figure sum investment had been lost and that creditors were owed “tens of thousands of dollars”. The two went to court to battle it out.
* David Brower (T–H–L) – Brower founded Friends of the Earth (FOE) in 1969, soon after resigning as executive director of the Sierra Club. FOE’s growing debt and tension between Washington lobbying and grassroots action led to a crisis between Brower and a majority of the board that recalled his conflict with the Sierra Club board. Facing staff cuts in 1984, Brower appealed over the board directly to the membership for emergency contributions. He was removed from the board for insubordination, but was reinstated when he threatened a lawsuit.
* Chicago Sun-Times (T–H–L) – In 1994, the Sun-Times was sold to Hollinger International for about $180 million. Hollinger was controlled, indirectly, by Canadian-born businessman Conrad Black. After Black and his associate David Radler were indicted for skimming money from Hollinger International, they were removed from the board.
* Bernard Docker (T–H–L) – In January 1953 the chairman of Midland Bank had asked Sir Bernard Docker for his resignation from the board of directors. Docker, who had been a director of Midland Bank since 1928, refused to resign. The board of Midland Bank notified its shareholders that they were to be asked to remove Docker from the board at the annual general meeting being held that February. The chairman stated that it was not in the bank’s best interest to be associated with the publicity surrounding Docker. Sir Bernard replied to the shareholders that the publicity stemmed from three court proceedings, all of which had been either settled or found in his favor. In late January, Docker resigned from the board of Midland Bank with immediate effect, claiming there was a rumor of an impending charge for a currency offence.
* Norah, Lady Docker (T–H–L) – The article discusses her husband, Bernard Docker. At the end of May 1956, he was removed from the board of Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), where he had been chairman. Lady Docker resigned from the board of directors of Hooper at the same time. The company, which owned the Docker Daimlers, had Lady Docker return them. The issues leading to the removal of the Dockers stemmed from the extravagant expenses they presented to the company, including the show cars made available for Lady Docker’s personal use, a £5,000 gold and mink ensemble that Lady Docker wore at the 1956 Paris Motor Show that she tried to write off as a business expense as she “was only acting as a model” at the show, and Glandyfi Castle, bought with £12,500 of BSA’s money and refurbished for £25,000, again with company money. (Jimbo Wales was bush league in comparison, with his Moscow massage reimbursement and $325 bottles of wine.)
* Kevin Gentry (T–H–L) – In December 2010, Gentry joined the board of the Cato Institute. Gentry was placed on the board by Charles Koch and David Koch. Cato Institute chairman Robert Levy and president Edward Crane expressed concern that Gentry was a conservative rather than a libertarian, with Crane referring to Gentry as a “Republican activist” and “social conservative.” Crane also expressed disappointment that Gentry had not involved Crane or other Cato Institute employees with Koch-sponsored donor events. In an opinion editorial posted on CNN.com, Gentry defended the Koch brothers against allegations that they wanted to compromise the political independence of the Cato Institute. In June 2012, as part of a settlement over the ownership of the Cato Institute, Gentry was removed from the board due to a provision that bars Koch employees from serving on the institute’s board.
* Srđa Popović (activist) (T–H–L) – In 2009, Popovic became a founding member of the board of advisers of Waging Nonviolence, but he was removed from the board in the wake of the Stratfor controversy — in 2011, the hacker collective Anonymous broke into the computer network of corporate intelligence agency Stratfor, and the subsequently leaked e-mails were published by WikiLeaks. Included was correspondence between Srda Popovic and analysts at Stratfor, and Wikileaks tweeted that CANVAS was “used by Stratfor to spy on opposition groups”.
* Abdussattar Shaikh (T–H–L) – Shaikh sat on San Diego’s Citizens Review Board on Police Practices (CRBPP) during the time frame of his co-operation with the FBI. Ethical questions arose about his qualifications for city employment, as active police informants are precluded from employment on police oversight committees for obvious reasons. Shaikh was later removed from the board.
* Alexey Shchusev (T–H–L) – Removed from the board of the Moscow branch of the Union of Architects, accused of plagiarism by the architects L. I. Saveliev and O. A. Stapran with a complaint against Shchusev alleging that he assumed the authorship of their “Moscow” hotel project.
Yours Is No Disgrace:
* Martha Layne Collins (T–H–L) – In 1990, she was removed from the board of regents of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, automatically triggered after she missed three consecutive board meetings between 1986 and 1989.
* Selena Coppa (T–H–L) – Named to the board of the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, she was subsequently elected to the Executive Board. She later resigned from this position, whistleblowing and citing ethical concerns about another executive board member. She was removed from the board after refusing to recant the charges. (One theory suggests this might be what happened to Dr. Heilman — he wanted to blow the whistle on another board member, was told to keep it in confidence, and he refused to recant.)
* Ebrahimi v Westbourne Galleries Ltd (T–H–L) – Mr Ebrahimi and Mr Nazar were the sole shareholders in a successful rug company and took a director’s salary rather than dividends for tax reasons. A few years later, when Mr Nazar’s son came of age, he was appointed to the board of directors and Mr Ebrahimi and Mr Nazar both transferred shares to him. After a falling out between the directors, Mr Nazar and son called a company meeting, at which they passed an ordinary resolution to have Mr Ebrahimi removed as a director. Mr Ebrahimi, clearly unhappy at this, applied to the court for a remedy to have the company wound up.
* Zafar Futehally (T–H–L) – With the Dynacraft Machine Company from 1942. The company was run along with Futehally’s brother and cousin, but in 1985 the Futehally brothers were removed from the board. (Probably just the company wanting to go in a new direction that the old geezers either resisted or were too weary to fulfill.)
* Richard Goldstone (T–H–L) – He was an honorary member of the Board of Governors of Hebrew University for over ten years prior to June 2010, when the University announced he had been dropped from the Board due to inactivity “for a decade or more”. In April 2010, Jerusalem lawyer David Schonberg had requested Goldstone be removed from the Board because of Goldstone’s UN report on Gaza that found Israel culpable in human rights violations. A University spokesperson stated that removing inactive members was a routine procedure, that other inactive members had also been removed, and that Goldstone’s removal had “nothing to do with his Report about Gaza”. (Yeah, suuuurrrre.)
* Ray R. Irani (T–H–L) – The former chairman and chief executive officer of Occidental Petroleum, removed from the board of directors of Occidental in May 2013. (Probably the geezer effect again, at age 78.)
* Ralph Schoenman (T–H–L) – Schoenman argued in a hearing that the U.S. had committed genocide in Vietnam. During the course of the tribunal, the U.S. government revoked Schoenman’s passport because of unauthorized visits to North Vietnam. Bertrand Russell publicly repudiated his relationship with Schoenman in December 1969 and had him removed from the board of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. Schoenman then renamed the American branch of the foundation the American Foundation for Social Justice and continued to promote hearings into alleged American atrocities in Vietnam.
* David Gordon Wilson (T–H–L) – Co-founder of Wilson TurboPower, removed from the board when his Wilson Turbogenerator (with a supposed electrical efficiency of greater than 50%) work was terminated. (citation needed, says Wikipedia. Maybe the Wikipediots could use this as a form of evidence of Wilson’s ouster.)
Whether Dr. James Heilman left the WMF board in disgrace or with his head held high, we cannot say. Heilman issued a formal statement of his own, which did not help much in clearing up the mystery:
I have been accused of three things:
Giving staff unrealistic expectations regarding potential board decisions. I have always stated to staff that I only represented 10% of the board and have never given assurances that I could convince other trustees. I would be interested in hearing staff weigh in on this accusation but I consider it unfounded.
Releasing private board information. I have not made public, private board discussions during my time on the board. I have however pushed for greater transparency both within the WMF and with our communities. I have made myself informed by discussing issues with trusted staff and community members and used independent judgement.
Publishing the statement about my removal on Wikimedia-l. I was not asked by other board members at any time before its publication to produce a joint statement or to delay publishing the statement I had put together a few days prior. The first proposal to collaborate I believe was by myself here https://lists.wikimedia.org/pipermail/wikimedia-l/2015-December/080502.html I was also not informed that the meeting was going to continue for the purpose of producing such a statement.
I have always acted in what I believe are the best interests of the movement and the WMF.
MD, CCFP-EM, Wikipedian
The controversy continues to percolate, in deepening murky layers of WMF politics, and our own take on the whole mess is here in our forum: