Medical Dean Denies Pressure to Pass Blacks

A Harvard Medical School dean last week denied an allegation aired on National Public Radio that the school's administrators pressure professors to pass Black students who are failing.

Walter Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, cited the medical school as an example of the reverse discrimination he says is advocated by President Clinton's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna E. Shalala.

Williams, a commentator for NPR, said the movement to promote racial diversity is hypocritical. He said Shalala, the former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has acted with other college presidents to discriminate against white students and contribute to a "new racism."

"At Harvard University's Medical School, pressure has been put on professors to pass black students who repeatedly fail examinations," Williams said. He could not be reached for further comment.

Dean for Medical Education Daniel D. Federman '49 replied to the charges in a letter that was broadcast last Thursday.

"I have been dean at Harvard Medical School for15 years. Never in my tenure has there been asingle instance of pressure on a faculty member topass a black student who repeatedly failedexaminations," Federman said.


Leon Eisenberg, professor of social medicineand psychiatry, criticized Williams' commentary asracist and invalid. "I've never heard worsenonsense," he said. "It may be that George Masonlets out incompetent economists. Just look at oureconomy."

Eisenberg said Harvard Medical School has asocial responsibility to graduate only thosestudents who will be qualified doctors.

"For the medical school to let a medicalstudent who was incompetent--whether black, white,or green--get out with a M.D. degree would be agross moral default," Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg, who chaired the committee thatstarted the medical school's affirmative actionprogram, said he has heard such charges before.

"You can't live in a racist society withoutexpecting racist charges," Eisenberg said. "Peoplewho believe that Blacks are genetically inferioralways assume that someone who graduates must havegotten some special deal."

One Medical School professor who spoke oncondition of anonymity said professors feelpressured to keep any student fromfailing--regardless of race.

"I think the whole that peoplepass," the professor said. "This is regardless ofwho they are."

He said "pressure" is a broad term that couldinclude administrative efforts to offeralternatives to students in danger of failing.

"I think the criticism might be that theprocess is very flexible, and the extreme decisionto say that somebody has actually failed a courseis pretty rarely taken," he said. "The decision isthat there has to be some alternative to pass thecourse."

However, the professor said that Williams'assertion was overstated. "Saying explicitly thatpressure has been put on professors to pass Blackstudents--I think that's outrageous.