White student sues Md. medical school over admissions policy Man says UM admits minority applicants who are less qualified

August 26, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The University of Maryland's School of Medicine prides itself on being a national leader in training blacks and other minorities to become doctors.

But that reputation -- and the admissions policies of Maryland and many other universities nationwide -- is under legal attack. A 37-year-old white man, Robert Farmer Jr., has sued the medical school and its officials, accusing them of illegally refusing him admission in favor of less qualified minority applicants.

"If your family is involved in crime, you can get into med school with a 2.5 [grade-point average]," Farmer said in reference to minority applicants during a telephone interview from the Caribbean island of Saba, where he has enrolled in a medical school. "But if you're a white guy and all you've tried to do is work hard and be honest, you can't get in."

Farmer's lawsuit, quietly filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in May, is part of a spreading legal and political battle over affirmative action on college campuses. It comes three years after the Supreme Court let stand an appellate court ruling barring the University of Maryland from awarding race-based scholarships. In Texas, another federal court outlawed the consideration of an applicant's race after a white Columbia, Md., woman filed suit over being rejected by the University of Texas law school.

"This case is not just about Rob Farmer," said Farmer's lawyer, John Montgomery of Arlington, Va. "The purpose of this case is to force the school to change its entire admissions policy and stop taking race into account. We want them to be race neutral and colorblind. There's no reason they can't be, and the law says they should be."

University officials would not comment specifically on Farmer's lawsuit. The attorney general's office has asked the court to dismiss the case, contending among other things that there is no evidence the medical school discriminated against Farmer.

"Everything is done on a case-by-case basis," said Joann Boughman, vice president for academic affairs at the university's Baltimore campus.

Race one of many factors

UM has one of the most diverse student populations of any medical school in the country, with blacks constituting 17 percent of its 587 students last year. But Boughman said an applicant's race is only one of many factors in admissions decisions.

But Farmer contends that few applicants of any race have had to overcome the obstacles he has -- a life of poverty and homelessness. His parents divorced when he was young, and he has lived in a van and a station wagon and in unheated homes in Baltimore and Colorado.

He graduated cum laude in 1991 from the University of Colorado with degrees in English and advertising. After working eight years as a volunteer emergency medical technician in Colorado, he decided to become a doctor.

Farmer said he took pre-med science courses at Towson University while working in construction jobs. His grades were unexceptional, and he did not score high on the Medical College Admissions Test. He was turned down when he first applied to the University of Maryland in 1995.

Then, Farmer said, he heard about a summer study program that the university offers to help disadvantaged students meet the tough med-school entrance requirements. Assuming that his lifelong poverty qualified him as disadvantaged, Farmer applied and was accepted. He said he was the only white person in the 25-student class.

After finishing the course, Farmer said, he retook the admissions test and vastly improved his scores, ranking in the top 25 percent of all students who took the exam nationally. His marks were at or above the average of those accepted by UM that year, his lawsuit contends.

Farmer acknowledged that he did not have outstanding grades or test scores, but he contended that they were better than most of the minority students accepted for Maryland's medical school when he last applied in 1996.

But the medical school did not invite him for an interview. Only four of the 25 students in Farmer's summer program were accepted, according to the university.

But Farmer scoffed at the university's claims that it weighs a number of factors -- many of them hard to quantify -- before deciding whom to admit.

Deciding to sue

Farmer said he decided to sue the university after reading about the federal court ruling against the University of Texas two years ago. He contacted the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative think tank in Washington, that brought the Texas lawsuit. The center decided not to take the case, Farmer said. Montgomery, the lawyer who took the case, has been involved in similar legal challenges to affirmative action.

Terry Pell, an attorney with the center, said that medical schools often base their admissions decisions on personal interviews and other unquantifiable factors. "It makes it very hard to litigate," he said.

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