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U. Med School accused of bias

Are minorities, women favored over white males?

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If you're a female or minority applicant to the University of Utah School of Medicine, your chances of getting in are about 50 percent. If you're a white male, the chances drop to 20 percent.

And that's discrimination, a legislative committee concluded Tuesday after hearing the results of a legislative auditor general's report on admissions policies at the U.

Dr. A. Lorris Betz, vice president for health sciences and dean of the medical school, defended the policy of trying to conform the makeup of medical school classes with general demographics in Utah. Such policies are consistent with medical schools around the country, which are trying to get more minorities and women into the medical marketplace.

"The ideal workforce reflects the population as a whole," he said. "If we can do it, great, but we're not working toward it."

He said there are "serious misconceptions" about the process, which must winnow 102 medical students from 500 to 600 qualified applicants each year.

Grade point averages and scores on tests to qualify for medical school carry less weight with those selecting medical students today than some other factors, such as varied experience, the capacity for compassion and community service, he said.

Members of the Legislative Audit Committee didn't buy it. "It feels to me like you do (discriminate)," said House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, after Betz had denied any discrimination in the admissions policy.

Stephens hammered sections of the report that indicated women and minorities are held to a lower academic standard than white males and that applications clearly indicate the ethnicity and gender of applicants, influencing those who conduct reviews.

Although Betz denied any use of official quotas, Stephens suggested it was very hard to tell the difference between quotas and numbers massaged to reflect demographics.

Rep. Carl R. Saunders, R-Ogden, who asked for the audit after a son and grandson were both axed from the potential medical school list, was even more direct. "Let's stop dancing around the issue with semantics, calling these issues gray that really are black and white. It's reverse discrimination, and it's wrong."

The report, he said, bore out his allegations of discrimination. Utahns need to be aware of the problems, he said.

Rep. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, a member of the higher education appropriations subcommittee, said the audit raises questions of whether tax monies are being used appropriately. There are "incongruities" between basic questions and answers about the medical school application process that need more study, she said.

"Do we want to celebrate diversity, or do we want to celebrate excellence in whatever form it comes?" she asked. The audit will be shared with the higher education appropriations group and the judiciary and education committees.

An auditing team, supervised by James Behunin, looked at many factors, including the 410 applications that were used in selecting the medical school entering class for 2001. Although there was no evidence that unqualified applicants were given preference, "the school's emphasis on diversity has led to claims by some applicants that they have not been given an equal opportunity."

Using diversity as a major standard for medical school applicants is contrary to the Board of Regents' general non-discrimination policy, which states that age, gender, race and other identifying qualities not be the basis for such decisions, the audit says.

Behunin said that a pending lawsuit in Michigan addresses many of the questions raised in the Utah audit. It is likely the question will come before the U.S. Supreme Court eventually, he said.

Although the audit found no particular discrimination based on religious preferences, some subtle factors put many of Utah's white males at a disadvantage, the report showed. For instance, because many in this group serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that "service" may be discounted because it is such a common experience, the audit suggested. One member of a review committee commented in writing that a particular applicant represented "what I like least about Utah males." Missionary service is considered a much more substantial "community service" in other states where these students apply, the report suggested.

The audit made several recommendations, most of which Betz said already have been implemented. The recommendations include:

That the school adopt a single minimum academic standard for all applicants.

That consideration of race, gender, religion, geographic background and other factors not be allowed in considering applications.

That the medical school provide underrepresented populations with special pre-admittance courses to level the playing field. (The U. has applied for a grant to expand such courses.)

That the practice of granting "courtesy" interviews to applicants who have not been accepted outright be discontinued.

That the dean for admissions not also head the Office of Diversity and Community Outreach. (The two responsibilities already have been separated, Betz said.)

That "equivocal" conclusions not be allowed. Applicants should receive a straightforward "yes" or "no."

That the number of applications forwarded by the Review and Interview Committees to the final Selection Committee be reduced.

E-MAIL: tvanleer@desnews.com