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March 19, 1998


Daniel Report's negative portrayal of black students is troubling

To the editor:

This is regarding your Feb. 19 two-page centerpiece story on the Daniel Report which decries the low graduation rates of our black students and was summarized the next day in a front-page Post Gazette article.

I am extremely troubled by the extraordinarily negative and unjustified characterization of black students considering the information on which it was based. The graduation rates in the Daniel Report only indicate percentages of first-time, full-time students admitted to our campus between 1985 and 1992 who graduated after four or six years.

Yet failure to graduate from Pitt is equated with academic failure (despite the fact that many students leave us each year for other reasons), students are divided into three groups for comparison purposes, and a context is thus created in which it seems justified to single out black students as chronic failures, which is vividly expressed in numerous phrases: "disproportionate…failure," "demonstrated steady state of underachievement," "paltry institution-wide. . .graduation rate," and "mediocrity."

This sets the stage for Vice Provost Daniel's recommendations to remedy what has now been established as black students' chronic failure:

Pitt must demand

1) that they perform as well as or better than other students,

2) that special access programs must produce good returns on the University's investments or risk overhaul or discontinuation after five years; and

3) that the institution must create conditions for its expectations to be met.

Implicit in Vice Provost Daniel's recommendations is his belief in black students' ability to succeed far beyond their potential. But this slight encouragement is virtually nullified by the persistent negative characterizations. That is unfortunate since many black students maintain good to outstanding academic records and make valuable contributions to the University. It is also unfortunate that, by comparison, the low graduation rates of other students are disregarded and therefore implicitly held up as examples of good academic attainment. This invites those students to view their performance as acceptable, despite numbers which indicate otherwise, and to view blacks in established stereotypical ways–as less intelligent and hardworking than other people, for example, and as recipients of unwarranted privileges and advantages, even those who begin with clear disadvantages.

Your story notes Vice Provost Daniel's conclusion that Pitt must change its approach to educating black students. I agree. But I urge that we begin by making a conscious effort to change the ways in which we think and talk about black students. We will then be able to address the larger problem suggested by overall low retention and graduation rates: that all of our students need and deserve the generative burden of our belief in their possibilities and our firm expectation that they will stay with us and flourish if given appropriate, sustained nurturing.

One area for fruitful inquiry is the first-year experience. The CAS Academic Intervention Project indicates that first-year students are more likely than others to find themselves in academic trouble. Every fall term over the last five years or so, roughly 700 out of approximately 9,000 CAS students fail to earn a C average for the semester and/or fail one or more required skills course(s) or prerequisite courses(s). The majority are first- or second-semester students, including internal and external transfers and relocates from regional campuses.

Normally, only about 7 percent are enrolled through UCEP (a special access program which services primarily blacks but also other students, including whites). Common sense as well as experience tells us that success at key transitional points in a student's academic life is crucial to success in the long run. Comprehensive evaluation of data, with particular attention to transitional moments (first year at the University, first year in a major, performance in introductory courses) can help us learn how to best help students. At a university, of all places, there is plenty of the requisite talent, determination and good will to use whatever resources are available to continually create the best possible environment for all of its students to take root and grow.

I am therefore confident of Pitt's ability to start fresh, to begin our tomorrow today–well ahead of the 21st century and the new millennium–fueled by ingenuity and infused with a sense of redemption.

Barbara Mellix

Assistant Dean College of Arts and Sciences

Editor's note: All information for the University Times story came from the Daniel Report and from an interview with Vice Provost Jack Daniel.


To the editor:

In his column on University Senate Matters (University Times, March 5), Gordon MacLeod, the Senate president, recounts his perception of an alarming situation in the Health Sciences and, particularly, the School of Medicine.

Fortunately for those of us who work in the School of Medicine, things are not as bad as MacLeod believes and it is certainly untrue that UPMC is a grasping mauler that seeks to undermine the academic mission in its quest for Mammon's glory. This is not to overlook, however, the problems that confront academic medicine here and elsewhere in the United States.

A bit of background is essential. Over the last 20 years, the financial support of medical schools has changed dramatically from being largely derived from state and federal government sources and private funds to coming predominantly from clinical income. Throughout the country, dollars from hospital revenues and clinical practice revenues have supported and continue to support research and education. This is no different at Pitt where UPMC and the clinical faculty have subsidized medical education and research for a number of years.

As best as I can determine, there is no intent to change this but there are new factors in the equation that require attention and understanding. Two problems have arisen in the last five years. First, clinical practice income is diminishing. The reimbursement physicians receive for patient services has been declining, a process that has been continuous and unrelenting and shows no prospect of stopping. Within medical schools this has led to major disruptions. Faculty, particularly junior faculty, recognize that simply to maintain their incomes, which are typically less than those of colleagues in private practice, they must increase clinical activities. The extra time for this comes, not surprisingly, from teaching and research time as well as leisure time and time with their families.

They did not expect to be placed under such pressures and the situation is dispiriting. They are uncertain about what the future holds and this also creates unease. The changes in medicine that have led to this are clear. Employers and the government perceive American medicine as too expensive in the competitive world marketplace. An easy place to cut costs is to reduce physician payments. Academic physicians are most at risk. Unlike private practitioners, their clinical incomes are taxed by the School of Medicine to support academic programs. They also contribute time to teaching and are expected to maintain a high level of scholarship and, in the odd moment, conduct research. Unlike the situation elsewhere in the University, there is minimal institutional support of faculty salaries in clinical departments.

As physician reimbursement for patient care diminishes, there is immense unrest and frustration among the clinical faculty. They are concerned about being able to teach, care for patients, do research and still have sufficient income to provide for their families. No one likes uncertainty and our world is now filled with it. The second problem is that the search to reduce medical costs has produced managed care. Whether we like it or not, managed care is with us and will be our companion for the foreseeable future. The impact of this, and it has begun already, is that hospital reimbursements are reduced. This makes it more difficult to support the academic enterprise. There is no evil purpose in this, nor is there an evident scapegoat. In particular, UPMC is not responsible for the problems that confront us. It is beset by the same forces. In his column, MacLeod recounts what he appears to view as a series of nefarious maneuvers by UPMC, mergers, acquisitions, formation of subsidiaries and the like as if it were part of a great plot against academic activities. To the contrary, UPMC is positioning itself to be an important factor in managed care in western Pennsylvania to promote academic activities. This is not a threat to academic medicine; rather, it is crucial to its existence. The University of Minnesota School of Medicine failed to acknowledge these forces as managed care took over the Minneapolis medical market. To survive, the University of Minnesota School of Medicine had to sell its hospitals to a private managed care company which now calls all the shots. Obviously, we do not want that to happen here.

The clinical faculty and UPMC have the same goals. We wish to provide the highest level of advanced medical care to patients in an environment of research and education. These activities are symbiotic; without research medical care cannot advance, without education there will be no new generations of physicians to outdo those who taught them and without medical care there can be no clinical research or education. Faculty are working with UPMC to plan the managed care network which will make this possible. For UPMC to continue to be a great medical institution, it must have the academic physicians and it must have facilities and patients for the physicians to meet their objectives. They are the ultimate source of medical progress. The physicians need UPMC. For all of our skills, we are not capable of running the complex business that is modern health care.

Together, UPMC and the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine make a great team. We expect to work together effectively in the future to promote the health and economy of this region, and of the country. Finally, I cannot help but wonder where MacLeod has been for the last 15 to 20 years. First as a consultant for ten years, and then as a member of the faculty for the past seven years, I have marvelled at the productive synergy between the set of private hospitals that comprises UPMC and the School of Medicine. This cooperation has made this both an outstanding medical center and an outstanding medical school. There are now great stresses in medicine and medical education and many challenges. More than in the past, these require that UPMC and the Health Sciences faculty work together to meet them. It is not helpful or productive to decry the very activities that have led to our excellence, and those that will serve us in leading medicine in this region in the future.

Robert Y. Moore

Professor and Chairperson Department of Neurology

and Professor Psychiatry and Neuroscience

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