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Underneath the Davis Affair


By Jim Cramer

IMAGINE this scenario: students and professors gather at a rally at University Hall to protest the statements of a tenured member of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. At the meeting speakers characterize the professor as a racist. Signs label him a Nazi. His resignation is demanded. The crowd is angry. But about at the point when you expect the administrators to be worried about keeping order, one of the speakers begins to read critical statements about the professor issued by the dean of the Faculty and the president of the University.

In a university where the president and deans have always tried to avoid demonstrations, it is difficult to conceive of such a situation. Yet this is precisely what happened last spring: President Bok and Robert H. Ebert, dean of the Medical School, released statements to be read aloud at a demonstration against a University professor, Dr. Bernard D. Davis '36, Lehman Professor of Bacterial Physiology. First in a letter to a prestigious medical journal and later in comments to the press, Davis has asserted that academic standards in medical schools have fallen in recent years because of the rise in the number of minority students admitted with "substandard academic qualifications." Whether through Davis naivete or reporters' searching for the simplified or sensational (The Crimson ran this headline across the top of the front page: "Professor Assails Blacks' Performance"), Davis's message came out as a challenge of the competency of all minority students.

Most of the other criticism against Davis stressed the racial implications of his articles. There was a reason for this, and even in retrospect a good one. It has to do with statements Davis had made linking genetics and heredity. Davis, who teaches Nat Sci 37, "Evolution, Genetics and Society," only goes halfway in a theory of biological determinism: He says there is no way to statistically prove difference in intelligence. But he has made pronouncements to the effect that the separation of gene pools of the races down through the years may cause genetic differences.

Because the statements by Davis in the public press were so intemperate and so seemingly calculated to sabotage people's faith in black doctors and black admissions programs, it is no wonder that he was quick to be called a racist. If anyone else had made those statements it may have made a difference in the way he would be treated. But Davis had spoken recently about genetics and racial differences; he should have known that people would relate that work with his statements. He should have realized that people would draw the conclusion that he believed that blacks are genetically inferior and therefore cannot ever be competent with the med school material.

That he did apologize on May 21 and stress that it was naivete which brought his comments out the way they appeared in the public press is not enough to bring apologies from those who had called him a racist. He left people little other choice to do so, considering the past character of his research in genetics and insensitive public statements.

The pattern of each story was similar. There would be a series of incendiary quotes a few paragraphs away from Davis's assertions about unqualified minority students. And then the news stories would toss in a quote from Davis warning of swaths of deaths and the incompetence of these soon-to-be-unqualified doctors.

The repercussions within the Med School area were immediate. Dean Ebert said last week that patients became suspicious of black doctors and asked that white doctors examine them. Blacks were insulted; by using such words as awarding diplomas on a charitable basis, Davis had cheapened the blacks' hardwon gains. And students, who believed Davis's comments would lead admissions people to reevaluate their minority programs and adopt more stringent standards, felt compelled to correct the situation.

President Bok and Dean Ebert felt strongly about the last argument, the potential damage to minority recruiting programs. Bok's speech was characteristically tempered. He said he greatly regretted the recent "publicity" casting doubt upon the quality and competence of students at the Med School. Dean Ebert's statement was much more in keeping with the tone of the day. He assailed Davis on several counts of irresponsibility and later in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine accused Davis of attacking all minority recruitment programs.

The outcome of the demonstration of 250 at the Longwood Quad was to make Davis a loner. The dean, the president, Davis's fellow faculty members and students all had denounced him. He, and anyone who believed in his arguments, would be characterized as racist nuts on a dangerous lunatic fringe.

But several recent developments suggest this characterization may not be accurate. More and more, it appears, doctors and professors in prestigious universities are adopting Davis's contention that the standards of excellence are being waived too often for minority students. Articles in The New Republic and Newsweek this summer noted Davis's support in other medical schools. In addition, George Richardson, the editor of the Medical School Alumni Bulletin, reports that he believes many of Harvard Med School's alumni would probably sympathize with Davis's views. Dr. F. Sargent Cheever, director of medical school admissions, says Davis did a service in pointing out possible problems with the medical school admissions policies. "I myself feel that Dr. Bernard Davis is not a racist, and that he is only concerned with the maintenance of standards."

Although the fewer than 100 letters to the New England Journal of Medicine, where Davis's article was first printed, have run 11-3 against, Davis has been getting a completely different count. Although he refuses to release the names of the letter-writers for publication, a check shows that almost all are professors from the most prestigious schools in the nation. Most took a conservative bent, asserting that the jump in the number of unqualified black students has endangered the schools' standards for graduation and has in some cases caused the schools to lower them.

But still other letters, ones generally less favorable than those from strict conservatives, claim that the events at the rally and subsequent statements by Ebert--including a letter to 118 medical school deans calling Davis irresponsible--threatened Davis's academic freedom. Davis himself believes academic freedom is now the prime issue at stake. "The message seems to be," he says, "if you violate the taboo on public discussion of this subject you need not only risk misunderstanding but you risk excommunication. If such a policy is allowed to prevail in our universities what will be its effect on the future of free inquiry and of dedication to excellence?"

Ebert considers Davis's case for academic freedom a "straw man." He adds that he felt "it was very important for me to write other medical schools saying Davis spoke for himself, not for the school--that's his academic freedom. But I have my own academic freedom, and it was important for me to say how I feel." Ebert says he believes Davis is not a racist--"the worst you could call him is insensitive," he says--and he doesn't doubt that there are other individuals who agree with Davis. They won't come forward, Ebert says, because it is difficult to separate a legitimate concern from a racial statement. Ebert says that he penned a forceful response because Davis's comments had led so many patients to refuse black doctors. As for Davis's contention that he is arguing about minimal standards and not the question of admitting blacks, Ebert responds: "Bernie can easily say that all he did was write a bland article," But, Ebert says, there has always been a resistance to the recruitment of minorities, and Davis has given "ammunition" to these conservatives."

There is no question that what Davis has done--whether it be through his original statements or his intemperate remarks after the first article was printed (he has apologized for them, but still contends standards have been eroded), have unfairly changed the way some people view black doctors. As long as insensitive statements such as Davis's suggestion that a student "might leave a swath of unnecessary deaths behind him" are remembered, then some people will have lingering doubts about black physicians. We can only hope that people forget his intemperate remarks and that they do not leave any permanent scars.

The Davis affair has given us one lesson. Accusations about the strictly racial implications of Davis's statements, whether wrong or right, carry little weight with many of the people who embrace his consideration of standards of excellence. If anything, such attacks will only goad people into Davis's camp, possible through sympathy for the scholar's rights of academic freedom.

If liberals are to keep the programs so necessary to quickly increase the number of black doctors for black communities, they must be willing to debate their conservative colleagues on the question of standards of excellence, instead of simply trying to isolate or slur their opponents.

In an era when opponents of vigorous affirmative action programs are not "rednecks" unabashedly out to deny minorities their fundamental rights but social scientists armed with evidence purporting to show the damaging effect quotas many have on blacks who have made it, liberals must be prepared to counter, not berate.

How can those in favor of maintaining these recruitment programs defend them to those who say that some standards of excellence will be compromised? One way is to refute the traditional criteria that those who holler "foul" go by. For instance, the National Examination Board which tests mostly memorized material rather than clinical ability, seems to be out-moded at a time when clinicians for poor, especially black areas, are in seriously short supply. The notion that scientific knowledge given during the first two years of med school is more difficult for some blacks than it is for some whites may be true, and if so, then both sides should be candid about it. After all, if blacks are admitted from schools thought to be disadvantaged themselves, why should administrators expect that they should be on par with other students immediately?

And, more important, what does it matter as long as they perform excellently in their clinical education, as is the case right now? Despite Davis's assertion, no one has proven that there is a direct link between performance by a doctor and tests like the National Boards. To the contrary, William P. Craget, from the Stanford University School of Medicine, noted in an informative letter to the New England Journal of Medicine this summer that he has found a much higher correlation with attitudinal behavior than lack of scientific knowledge among poor internship performances he has analysed.

Critics of this argument are always quick to cite the Health, Education and Welfare administrator who, when he heard that blacks weren't taking religious studies because they did not have a strong knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, two prerequisites, told the school to get rid of the two languages and include more modern languages. The analogy is too easily and inconsiderately applied. If there is no clear link between the scientific knowledge and clinical performance, then what is so outrageous about making the curriculum fit today's present need for more doctors in impoverished areas?

And then there is the simple, most-direct explanation for recruiting more and more black candidates: as most liberals and conservatives agree, there is no genetic difference between the races, therefore as long as there is an income disparity and an educational disparity the medical schools must be willing to extend their services to minimize these differences. Only when the disparity is cancelled should these programs be abolished.

But in order to persuade, it is first important to admit that there are two sides to the discussion of admissions. Crying racist and claiming that Davis's supporters are attacking all minority students' competence duck the conservatives' insistence on maintaining standards of excellence in the first two years' academic work for all students, an argument that must be challenged. What is needed is an honest attack pointing up the limited link that these standards have with providing better distribution of health care in America.

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