Non-Black Student Says U. Kentucky Medical School Mistreats African Americans
by Lachin Hatemi M.D.
Men of Honor is an inspiring movie starring Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The movie was inspired by story of the first African-American master diver in the U.S. Navy, Carl Brashear. I watched the movie when it first came out in 2000, and I’ve repeatedly watched it over the years when I needed motivation and courage during difficult times as a medical student.
The main character of the movie, Carl Brashear (played by Cuba Gooding), decides to leave this disadvantaged upbringing of his native Kentucky in 1948 to join the U.S. Navy. Young Carl was determined to overcome racism and eventually become the first black American Navy diver.
As dramatized by the movie, Carl accomplishes his dreams with great difficulty, first by enrolling in a navy diving school in New Jersey. At every stage of his training, Carl encounters outright hostility from his classmates and superiors. In the end and against all odds, he achieves his dreams, albeit at a great personal cost.
Brashear’s life story shows that with persistence and hard work even a poor kid can achieve greatness against all odds.
Today, we do not have outright racism at our schools. Nobody wakes up black kids and hose them down with ice cold water, as Carl had to endure. Professors cannot insult minority students without being reprimanded, and hopefully Kentucky is not as racist as the old days when Brashear was a sharecropper teenager. At least this is what I believed when I enrolled at University of Kentucky Medical School in 2004; however, my naïve dreams about post-racial America quickly dissipated.
As a medical student, I witnessed the majority of my black classmates simply giving up on their dreams by quitting medical school or by being kicked out by the school administration. Initially, I did not understand the reasons behind the unusually high attrition rates among black medical students. However, I found out why shortly after I became a third-year medical student. At UK Medical School, discrimination happened at the policy level – in a rather sinister way.
Unlike the first two years of medical school, the third and fourth years of medical school are based on practical training that take place in hospitals. Medical students learn their profession as they treat patients with help from medical residents and supervising physicians. A significant portion of one’s grades during the last two year of medical school depends on the opinion of the supervising professors at a given clinical rotation. You can be the best and the brightest medical student, but if a professor has a negative opinion of you, you simply get bad grades and are out of luck.
I thought my black classmates would complain about racism and unfair treatment during the last two years of medical school. To my surprise, not many of them disputed their grades. Black students were too proud to do that. But most black students at UK Medical School also were from out-of-state and paid much more than their white classmates, so they really wanted to play it safe and simply graduate and leave Kentucky for good.
They would wake early in the morning to work long days to prove their worth to their superiors in order to get good grades – just like other students – but something sinister was happening within the school administration.
In many instances, students had to wait up to three months to get their grades for a clinical rotation, and there was simply no reason for such a delay. How can the professors grade you fairly based on your subjective performance, medical knowledge and professionalism without the aid of a standardized test? How do you expect a professor to remember you three months after the class is over?
Sometimes students might even be graded by a professor they’d never met before. The grading process during these critical years at UK Medical School was so scandalous that apparently some professors at UK Medical School have the supernatural ability to judge your character and medical knowledge without even talking to you once – and they do that solely based on your picture and name on top of the grading sheet. Is this why black students were performing so badly!
How would you feel if you were a black student paying in excess of $50,000 per year in tuition yet had to wait up to three months to be graded by a professor who barely knows you or had not met you even once? Apparently the accreditation organization like LCME was not diligent enough in their onsite visits to evaluate the quality of education at UK Medical School to uncover this scandal. Forcing students to wait up to three months is a direct violation of the accreditation rules for medical schools.
Why did black medical students not protest against such bad treatment? Don’t they have the opportunity to evaluate their professors in the end of each course?
The answer to this question can be found in the existing school policies masterminded by Dr. Darrell Chester Jennings, the ex-dean of Medical Education at University of Kentucky. During Dr. Jennings’ tenure, student feedback was very closely monitored to filter out and identify dissenters. Jennings’ policies worked very efficiently at the expense of minority medical students.
Under Dr. Jennings’ policies, students had to file their evaluation of their professors before receiving a grade. The evaluation had to be filed precisely within a one week period after the class’ completion. If you do not fill out the faculty evaluation within that period, you faced steep penalties, which were personally enforced by nobody other that Dr. Jennings. Your grades would be withheld against your will, and you might still get a failing grade even if you got an “A” for the class.
Dr. Jennings would go as far as to withhold a student’s diploma up to a year or to dismiss a medical student as punishment. So all medical students had to submit their opinions about a professor under duress and under Dr. Jennings’ watchful eyes. Many students were hesitant to write down their candid opinions about a professor just to avoid the risk of retaliation.
Federal regulators need to look at the policies of the UK Medical School to understand why minorities cannot succeed in this institution that is funded by taxpayers. Dr. Jennings also should apologize for his decade-long discriminatory policies that took away students’ First Amendment rights by censoring student feedback. With people like Dr. Jennings on UK Medical School’s payroll, only black students who are as courageous as Carl Brashear can graduate from University of Kentucky Medical School within the expected four-year period.
The UK Medical School policies remind me of the story of John E. Buhler who was at Emory’s dental school in the 1950s. During Buhler’s tenure, 65% of Jewish dental students either failed out or were forced to repeat up to two years of coursework in the four-year program, a common destiny shared by the black medical students over the last decade.
Hopefully, the U.S. Department of Education and LCME will step in and investigate Dr. Darrell Jennings’ discriminatory treatment of the medical students. Medical education is difficult enough; it does not have to be a nightmare because of people like Dr. Jennings.
Lachin Hatemi is a physician in Buffalo, New York. His interests include human rights, racial equality, and interfaith dialogue. You can reach Lachin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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