Court to hear discrimination suit

White man rejected by school claims bias

January 26, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Robert Farmer is so convinced that he would be a student at the University of Maryland medical school if his skin were a different color that he's made a federal case out of it.

"I knew when I was rejected from the class that entered in 1996 that something was fishy," Farmer says. "I felt if I had been black, they would have rolled out the red carpet for me. As it was, I didn't even get an interview."

Farmer's discrimination suit against the medical school, filed more than two years ago, surfaces in U.S. District Court in Baltimore today for a summary judgment hearing before Judge Benson E. Legg.

The case - one of several around the country grappling with this issue - has the potential to change the admission policies of Maryland schools that are required by state law to seek diverse student bodies. Or it could be nothing more than another step in Farmer's quest to become a medical doctor.

Regardless of the outcome, this case likely will be appealed to the 4th Circuit appellate court. One of the challenges to the use of race in admissions - probably one from Michigan or Washington - likely will end up before the Supreme Court.

In today's hearing, lawyers for the medical school - pointing to a questionable letter of recommendation for Farmer - will argue that he would not have been admitted under any circumstances. If Legg agrees, the constitutional issues of allegedly discriminatory practices will not be considered.

Farmer's lawyer will ask Legg to compel the medical school to admit his client immediately and to move to a second phase of the case that would consider the legality of racial preferences. Farmer also is seeking monetary damages for the delay in his medical career.

"In the first part of the case, we want the judge to rule that the school discriminated against Rob Farmer personally," says John Montgomery of Arlington, Va., Farmer's attorney. "In the other part later on, we will be asking the judge to stop all forms of racial preferences."

Comparing grades, scores

Much of Farmer's case is built on a comparison of his grades and scores on the MCAT - the medical school equivalent of the SAT - with those of minority students who were admitted.

"I have challenged them to pull ... the ... applications of black students whose MCAT scores were comparable to Rob Farmer's who were turned down," Montgomery says. "They haven't responded."

In one of his filings in the case, Montgomery wrote that the University of Maryland Medical School "would have been so happy to have received an application from a black student with such high MCATs that [its] problem ... would have been how to persuade him to attend [Maryland] instead of some other medical school."

But Dawna M. Cobb, the deputy counsel in the state's attorney general's office who is handling the case for the medical school, contends that it was not Farmer's MCAT scores that led to his rejection - it was his letter of recommendation from Towson University where he took pre-med courses.

While recommending Farmer - though not with the highest possible mark - the letter expressed concern about "whether his personality and somewhat inconsistent academic performance will lend themselves to the conventions of the medical profession he hopes to enter."

"No one with that kind of letter is going to get an interview, regardless of race," says Cobb.

That should end the case, Cobb says, but if it moves into the second phase, she will argue that the medical school's use of race in its admissions is in accordance with the last Supreme Court ruling on the issue - the 1978 Bakke case. Although that decision ordered a white Californian admitted to a state medical school, ruling unconstitutional a program that set aside slots for minorities, it also said that achieving diversity in student bodies is a "compelling interest" of the state.

"We have a right to consider race, not only because of the educational benefits of a diverse student body, but also because of the importance of educating a racially and ethnically diverse population of medical students who will become doctors," Cobb says.

"So we are not denying that race is used; what is harder is getting our hands around exactly how it is used," she says. "In deciding who is admitted, the committee gets a sense of the whole person. Clearly a person's race informs that."

Francis Canavan, an associate vice chancellor of the University System of Maryland, would not comment on the pending case. "However," he says, "race is one of the many factors our institutions take into account to achieve a diverse student body, which is a goal we enthusiastically support."

Applicant's background

Farmer, 40, was rejected by numerous medical schools in this country and eventually entered Saba Medical School on the Caribbean island of that name in the Netherland Antilles. He completed the first two years of school there, the coursework phase, and seeks admission to Maryland for the second two clinical years.

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