After several medical students, including some Brigham Young University graduates, allegedly made derogatory comments to female medical students at the University of Utah School of Medicine last fall, 24 BYU science professors signed a letter apologizing and said they have taken steps to ensure that the incident is not repeated.
Although the incident that sparked the controversy involved BYU graduates, it also involved students from other schools. And some of the offensive remarks were directed at minority students as well, according to John Dwan, a spokesman for the University of Utah Health Sciences, which includes the medical school.
It's less a BYU vs. Utah issue than a matter of "majority white males not being sensitive to minorities and women," Dwan said.
What the U. has characterized as a "small" group of male medical students apparently indicated they thought female classmates should not be training to be doctors but should instead focus on rearing children. And they indicated ethnic students had gained entrance to the medical school simply because of their minority status.
The remarks and the backlash they created came at a time when the U. medical school has been making a concerted effort to attract more ethnic minority and female students and complaints about the comments were taken very seriously, Dwan said. The issue was among topics discussed by Victoria Judd, U. associate dean of admissions at the medical school, during a meeting with BYU administrators early this year.
In response to the meeting, College of Biology and Agriculture Dean R. Kent Crookston issued a memo expressing his concern and professors signed on to a letter of apology to Judd.
In the letter to Judd, written by William S. Bradshaw, professor of zoology, they described themselves as "disappointed and saddened" to learn that former BYU students were displaying sexist attitudes and described their commitment to providing "an excellent undergraduate education" to all students, without gender distinction.
"Many of us have made a concerted effort to encourage our female students in their aspirations for specialized post-graduate training in law, medicine, business or other graduate programs and have provided strong positive assistance during the application process. We have specifically criticized those negative attitudes which discourage our women by suggesting that their desire (to go to medical school) is illegitimate.
"Thank you for making us aware of this problem and accept our apologies for the limited vision of those persons in your program who make wrongful judgments about medical training for women," the letter said. "We pledge our continued efforts to eliminate these unfortunate attitudes; the issue has already been readdressed in many of our classrooms."
While Crookston did not attend the meeting with Judd, he told the Deseret News he thought the issue needed to be addressed.
"It has come to my attention, several times lately, that some of our women, particularly some of our female students, have become victims of sexist attitudes and comments. I have personally witnessed some of this and perceive that the 'problem' will not be an easy one for us to alleviate. I say this because it appears that much of the attitude that results in the manifestations of the issue originate (and will continue to do so) in settings and circumstances beyond the influence or control of the college," Crookston said in the memo.
"The U.'s position is that the problem has been handled appropriately, and we don't see it as a major institutional problem," Dwan said. "But it does point out the challenge. Throughout society, majority white males are not being appropriately sensitive to minorities and women. And it's particularly important in a medical school setting. Part of the curriculum has to be to teach that sensitivity. If (students) haven't picked it up before they go to medical school, they have to pick it up in medical school and be aware of the needs and points of view of people who are different from them."
Dwan said increasing diversity at the medical school has been a top priority and they've had some success. For instance, this year 45 percent of the freshmen are women, the highest percentage ever. But as the numbers of women and ethnic minorities increase, the number of white male students can't help but decrease some.
Although Crookston expressed concern that the controversy would hurt the BYU graduates' chances to get into the U. School of Medicine, Dwan said it wouldn't influence admission decisions. "We have a lot of BYU grads on our faculty, admissions committees, etc., and I'm sure that doesn't enter into it. The admissions committee and process are so sensitive that the best students get in regardless of where they are from. And BYU grads weren't the only ones involved."
The issue of a woman's role in society is not a new one for BYU, according to Crookston. And he believes that most people fall somewhere near his own view, which is both a desire to see his daughters marry well and have a happy family and a wish that they would be able "to blossom and fulfill their potential and use the talents they are endowed with," to be able to provide for themselves. Most faculty and staff, he said, support women in their interests in careers in the hard sciences. They try to be sensitive, however, to the expectations of both students and their families, and sometimes that creates its own challenges.