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Bernard Davis and Minority Students At the Med School


IN HIS ARTICLE published in this month's New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bernard D. Davis '36, professor of Bacterial Physiology, has done a disservice to the Medical School's admissions policies, to the University's affirmative action program and to all minority students. Determining what constitutes a good medical education and who deserves one has never been an easy task. But by claiming that some minority students at Harvard have "substandard academic qualifications" which will bring about a decline in the quality of the nation's health care program, Davis has distorted a complex issue involving all medical students and manufactured a racist charge that must be condemned.

In recent years, discussions within the Medical School faculty meetings have been increasingly concerned with Harvard's "declining standards." Professors have pointed to the growing number of students who choose to practice community and family medicine after graduation instead of pursuing medical research and to the impression, as one doctor has put it, that Harvard medical students "just aren't as good as they used to be." Faculty members point to the lower average scores of Harvard students in recent years on Part 1 of the National Medical Board Examination, a standardized test that measures basic scientific knowledge, as the most obvious evidence of Harvard's slipping standards. To attribute this decline to the Medical School's adoption five years ago of a "core curriculum" that does not emphasize the anatomy and pharmacology required for the exam--a change which affected the performance of all students and has since been abandoned--is a reasonable assumption. But to attribute a supposed lowering of standards at the school to the increased number of minority students admitted during those years is clearly racist and wrong. To further single out, as Davis did, five of the ten students who failed the board exam last year merely because they are minority students, is even more offensive.

Just as Davis incorrectly chose one black student who was voted an M.D. by the faculty although he had failed Part 1 of the National Board after five tries as representative of most black students at the school, so too it is unfair for him now to take the five who failed last year as representative of the approximately 30 minority students in the class. It has been proven in several cases that standardized tests like the National Board Exam are biased against minority students. Even considering the higher proportion of blacks and whites who failed the exam last year, the results say more about the nature of a test taken in the middle of a medical school career than they do about any students' "ability to handle material" they will later encounter as physicians.

Davis has claimed his intention in attacking black students performance was to enhance the Medical School's sense of responsibility to produce competent physicians. The way to fulfill this responsibility is to intensify efforts to recruit good students rather than making minority students a scapegoat.

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