Medical school admissions process argued in court

Rejected candidate blames reverse discrimination

January 27, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The admissions practices of the University of Maryland medical school were dissected in federal court yesterday in the first public airing of a suit charging the school with reverse discrimination.

Robert Farmer, 40, filed the suit more than two years ago, alleging that he was turned down without even being interviewed for the class that entered in 1996, although less qualified minority applicants were admitted. But the medical school's attorney told U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg that Farmer would not have been admitted regardless of race because of a less than laudatory letter of recommendation.

"No black who applied with a letter like that was ever offered an interview," said Dawna Cobb, deputy counsel in the state attorney general's office, referring to the letter from a committee at Towson University, where Farmer took pre-med courses. The letter questions whether Farmer's personality and grades would "lend themselves to the conventions of the medical profession."

Noting that one medical school admissions official said she had never seen anything like that letter before, Cobb said: "All the facts [that led to Farmer's rejection] had nothing to do with race."

But Farmer's attorney said that if the Towson letter totally disqualified his client, then he would never have been admitted to a program to help disadvantaged applicants improve their scores on the MCAT, the medical school equivalent of the SAT.

John Montgomery told the court that the same phrase was included in the letter of recommendation submitted when he applied for the class that started in 1995 but was admitted to a program run by the Maryland medical school designed to improve his chances for admission in 1996.

"If that phrase meant that he would never be admitted to medical school, then they would not have allowed him in that program," Montgomery said, noting that Farmer was the only white in the program and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the medical school dean, who ran it.

Cobb said the program had no direct contact with the medical school admissions office. Six of the 25 students in the program applied to Maryland and two were rejected, Farmer and one black student. Montgomery said Farmer's MCAT scores and grades were better than the blacks who were admitted.

He noted that whites who entered the medical school in 1996 had average MCAT scores of about 30 and grade point averages of 3.6 while blacks had average MCAT scores of 24 and grade point averages of 3.0.

Cobb said that the medical school does use race in the admissions process but only in a "subtle" way that is permitted under the 1978 Supreme Court Bakke decision.

"There are no points given for race, no checklist," she said.

Cobb was able to answer a challenge laid down by Montgomery at the hearing, producing an application from a black student with MCAT scores similar to Farmer's who was turned down. Cobb said the application was also for the class that entered in 1996 and that the admissions committee again had problems with a letter of recommendation.

Yesterday's hearing was for a summary judgment. The attorneys called no witnesses but asked Legg to render a decision without conducting a full trial.

If Legg rules that Farmer would not have been admitted under any circumstances, then Farmer has no standing to challenge the medical school's admissions process. Legg could also order the school to admit Farmer -- who completed two years of medical school in the Netherland Antilles -- for the third year of the Maryland program and then consider the issue of alleged discrimination.

Legg scheduled another day of arguments on the summary judgment for Feb. 13, but also indicated that he might instead order a full trial with witnesses.

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