CUNY Medical School as a Model for Minority Admissions
The New York Times recently documented how New York City’s elite public high schools have lost minority students due to over reliance on standardized tests. The experience of the CUNY Medical School shows it’s possible to select qualified minority students by identifying those with high levels of motivation and energy, rather than just depending on test scores.
Back in 1972, City College President Robert Marshak and I set up the CUNY Medical School at City College of New York, then the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. We sought to create a medical school that would make it easier, cheaper and faster for poor, minority, and immigrant students to gain a first-class medical education, and return to serve their communities.
We modeled the program on medical schools in the rest of the world except for the US and Canada: we would admit students right out of high school. Yet we had to maintain the highest academic standards; after all, our students would have to take the same medical boards as other medical students nationwide. We arranged with other New York area medical schools, including NYU and Mount Sinai, to accept our students for the two clinical years, enabling students to obtain an MD in six instead of the normal eight years.
Selecting students offered the greatest challenge. There were 850 applicants for a maximum of seventy openings in the first class in the fall of 1973. The admissions procedure had to avoid bias and quotas. If we wanted to get more minorities into medical school, we had to find a way of choosing them without ethnic or racial prejudice. It was tricky, because sometimes bias is not immediately apparent.
When I set out to establish an admissions committee, I had no students and no faculty. For interviewers, I leaned on the City College faculty and upon former CCNY students who were now in medical school. Our new fifteen-member Admissions Committee had no prior experience with medical students, let alone with such a unique program. I divided the committee into five three-member subcommittees. For each subcommittee, I enlisted one student, one regular science faculty member, and one person who had contacts within the black or other minority communities. Those three people together would not only make up one-fifth of the Admissions Committee, but they would also be an “interviewing committee.” I tried to make sure that every potential student would have someone of like ethnicity on their interviewing committee. Our admissions committee included everyone: black, Latino, Chinese, Orthodox Jews, and other ethnic groups. It included outside women doctors, because there were very few women scientists in the faculty at that time. There was no bias against female applicants. One of the neat things about admitting students straight from high school is that the girls are way ahead of the boys in maturity and frequently interview as better candidates. The girls we admitted always did better!
The personal interview was a vital part of admissions. But how should we structure the interview? I devised a simple solution. The first question one of the three interviewers asked a student would be: “Tell us about last weekend. What did you do after you left school at 3:00 p.m. Friday, hour by hour, through the weekend? Tell us what time you did things — have dinner, play a game, watch a show, read a book — what time you went to bed, what time you got up; everything that happened over the weekend.” This generally took the first ten minutes, giving the three-person committee a stock of stories that provided insight into the applicant’s qualities. The students had come prepared to be asked: “Why do you want to be a doctor?” But we never asked that question, because the answer was obvious. Most of the applicants came from immigrant or underprivileged families, and they were seeking entry to medical school in order to secure a good education and a good life. The students didn’t understand why we were asking such silly questions: What were we looking for? Meanwhile, we were putting together a picture of their energy level, motivation, interests, and readiness to serve the community, so that we could find students that were energized — or “energize-able,” if we could get them into our program. This way, the admissions procedure could start with a clean slate.
In one instance, we were interviewing a young Chinese woman. There was no Chinese member on this committee. I had urged the faculty interviewers not to voice their views after the applicant left the room until the student members had expressed their thoughts, because we did not want faculty to influence the student committee members in any way. Suddenly, an Orthodox Jewish student on the committee said outright, “She’s not an appropriate candidate. She won’t have time to study!” “Why not?” I asked. The student said something like, “Her parents are both working, one making fortune cookies, and the other working full-time in a laundry. There are so many kids in the family and only three rooms. She’d never make it through medical school.” I replied, “Yes, but she’s working at the Chinatown Health Clinic, and she has applied for a grant from the Board of Ed to form a female sex-education group at Stuyvesant High School that would advise high school girls how not to get pregnant.” In those days, sex education was controversial and many parents opposed it. I asked the committee: “This kid has gone to the toughest high school in New York City, she’s got a grant application in, and she’s getting through with flying colors. Do you think she’s not going to be able to make it?”
The interviewing committees made their decisions independently, so no one knew what the final ethnic composition of the class would be. Out of 850 applicants, we invited eighty-three to join our first class. Of the sixty-two students who enrolled, twenty-nine were Caucasian, and thirty-three were minorities (twelve black, fourteen Hispanic, and seven Asian). Thirty of the enrollees were women. The roughly fifty-fifty split of white and minority students fulfilled our intended goals and set a precedent for future classes.
On Friday, May 29th 2019, I marched with cap and gown in the Class Day Ceremony at City College to honor the Graduating Class of 2019, who will go on to become the CUNY School of Medicine’s Class of 2023. Sixty-three of the class of eighty-eight graduated magna or summa cum laude. Much has changed over the years: the program now takes seven instead of six years, and the school now has its own affiliated hospital, Saint Barnabas in the Bronx.
But the commitment remains to welcome minority and other disadvantaged students, who will return as doctors to provide primary care in their communities. There are now over 2200 CUNY physicians practicing mostly in the New York area. That is my proudest accomplishment.
Thomas H. Haines is a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry of City College of the City University of New York. This account is taken from his forthcoming memoir, A Curious Life: From Rebel Orphan to Innovative Scientist, Post Hill Press, August 2019.