By DONOVAN HARRELL
The Department of Education is investigating the University of Pittsburgh for allegedly discriminating against a School of Medicine professor who penned a white paper that criticized affirmative action efforts in the medical field.
The department believes the University may have “improperly targeted” Norman Wang, a cardiologist and an associate professor of Medicine, and violated his academic freedom in retaliation for writing the white paper, originally published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on March 24.
The paper resurfaced in August to heavy criticism, with cardiologists calling the paper racist and Pitt administrators distancing themselves from the paper’s claims. One of the more common criticisms of the paper is that it doesn’t account for the effects of systemic racism on applicants before they apply.
The JAHA also redacted the paper in August and said in a statement on Twitter that the paper “does NOT represent AHA values. JAHA is editorially independent but that’s no excuse. We’ll investigate. We’ll do better.”
In response to the backlash against the paper, UPMC, which has been a separate legal entity from the University of Pittsburgh since 1998, removed Wang from his position as program director of the UPMC Electrophysiology Fellowship in August. Pitt’s position is that the actions taken against Wang were done by UPMC and not by the University. Many professors in the School of Medicine have dual appointments at UPMC.
In the letter, dated Oct. 7 and addressed to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, the Department of Education said Pitt retaliated against Wang “with a campaign of denunciation and cancellation” for the paper among several other accusations.
“Consequently, the Department is concerned Pitt’s many representations to students, faculty, and consumers in the market for education credentials regarding its support for academic freedom are false,” the letter said. “The facts further suggest Wang may have been disparately treated because of his race (Asian). That is, Pitt would not have acted against him for publishing an academic paper containing the same or similar arguments and empirical data if he were of a different race.”
The department added that Pitt’s official statements show the University uses race-based admission and hiring.
“The Department is concerned by Pitt’s official statements denouncing Wang’s empirical case for race-neutral admission and hiring, because Pitt’s statements necessarily suggest it supports and engages in overtly race-based admission and hiring,” the letter said. “Race-based admission and hiring could constitute systemic discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in violation.”
A Pitt spokesman said in a statement that the University hasn’t engaged in unfair practices.
“The University of Pittsburgh has received the Department of Education's letter. We look forward to cooperating with this investigation,” the statement said. “The University of Pittsburgh did not take any adverse action against Wang and we are fully committed to advancing the value of academic freedom. We are also confident that our admissions and hiring policies and practices are fair and lawful. Nothing in the Department’s letter provides a basis to call into question those policies and practices.”
Wang, who declined to comment on the matter, argued in the paper that since 1969, affirmative action initiatives promoting diversity, inclusion and equity in medicine have been mostly unsuccessful because of a “limited qualified applicant pool and legal challenges to the use of race and ethnicity in admissions to institutions of higher education.”
“Ultimately, all who aspire to a profession in medicine and cardiology must be assessed as individuals on the basis of their personal merits, not their racial and ethnic identities,” Wang said.
Wang also said in the paper that there “exists no empirical evidence by accepted standards for causal inference to support the mantra that ‘diversity saves lives.’ ”
In September, the American Association of University Professors came to Wang’s defense in a letter also addressed to Gallagher. According to the letter, Wang provided the AAUP with emails sent around the medical school that addressed his case.
After reviewing the emails, the AAUP was concerned that the University did not give Wang proper due process before he was removed from his position.
On July 31, Samir Saba, chief of the School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology and co-director of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, removed him from the cardiac electrophysiology training program and “from all supervisory and recruiting roles in medical education” in an email on Aug. 6, according to the letter.
In one of the department communications highlighted in the letter, Kathryn L. Berlacher, director of the UPMC cardiology fellowship program, told Wang in an email that his presence in any educational environment harms students.
“Due to your recent publications, expressed beliefs and your ongoing stance to defend them, we have had to evaluate the teaching environment that you create and the safety of our learners when you are in a superior or authoritative role,” Berlacher said in the email, according to the letter. “After discussion with our fellows and division leaders as well as GME leadership, it is clear to many of us that any educational environment in which you partake is inherently unsafe, increasing our learners’ risk for undue bias and harm.
“Thus we can no longer have you serve in any medical education role in the institution, specifically pertaining to the general cardiology and electrophysiology fellows, while also including medical students and residents. This relates to any and all supervisory and evaluative capacities for trainees, including but not limited to serving as the attending of record on service or during a procedure, teaching didactics, pre-existing clinics, and mentoring research projects.”
The organization called for Wang’s educational responsibilities to be immediately restored, or for Wang’s case to be taken up in other official university procedures.
“Because Professor Wang’s research and publication are protected under principles of academic freedom, the summary action taken to suspend him from his educational responsibilities is illegitimate under AAUP-supported standards,” the letter said. “Allowing this sanction to stand without affordance of academic due process belies the University’s whole-hearted endorsement of academic freedom in its official documents.”
Marika Kovacs, co-chair of the University Senate’s Tenure and Academic Freedom committee, said the committee has been involved with Wang’s case from the beginning because they believe he was stripped of his teaching and research supervisory responsibilities without due process.
She emphasized that the committee’s concern has not been the content of the article that he published, “but rather the administrative sanctions that were initiated in response, which had no faculty input and provided him no due process at all,” which they believe violated his academic freedom.
Kovacs said she and two other committee members met with School of Medicine Dean Anantha Shekhar and Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer, to voice their concerns, but Kovacs said matters have not been fully resolved yet. Kovacs said that while many disagree with Wang’s opinion, neither Pitt nor UPMC has provided any evidence that he misrepresented data in his article.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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