UCLA Was Poised To Launch Its Own Investigation of Medical School Admissions—But Refused To Protect Whistleblowers From Retaliation

Jun 11, 2024 | U.S. | 0 comments

The University of California, Los Angeles, medical school has gone to extraordinary lengths for over five years to shield its admissions practices from internal scrutiny, stonewalling data requests from concerned professors and refusing to assure admissions officials that they would not face retaliation for cooperating with an internal probe of the school’s admissions office, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation and documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Since at least 2018, the school has refused to provide members of its faculty oversight board data on the relationship between admitted students’ academic credentials and their performance in medical school, two former members of that board said.

It has also slow-walked, since November of last year, its response to a public records request for similar data, pushing back the estimated date of availability four times over the course of six months, according to emails from UCLA’s public records office.

The November data request was filed by a UCLA professor and came as whistleblowers were preparing to participate in an internal probe of the medical school’s dean of admissions, Jennifer Lucero, conducted by UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office. Faculty had observed a decline in student preparedness since she was hired in 2020, five professors told the Free Beacon, while admissions officers had seen their colleagues, led by Lucero, lower standards for minority applicants in violation of state law. After years of complaints to the Discrimination Prevention Office, UCLA was finally poised to investigate the admissions committee.

Four members of the committee had agreed to participate in that probe. But first, they wanted written assurances from UCLA that they would not be sanctioned for violating a nondisclosure agreement they had signed barring discussion of admissions meetings.

The committee members “are afraid to go ‘on the record’ because they are concerned they will be breaking the law,” a medical school professor wrote to UCLA leaders, including the dean of the medical school and its top legal officer, on behalf of the four admissions officials in November 2023. As such, they “are requesting an official letter … that explicitly states that they are released from the NDA.”

The school refused—twice—to provide that letter. Instead, officials implied that indemnifying the whistleblowers would compromise “due process” and impede a “fair and unbiased investigation,” according to emails obtained by the Free Beacon.

Left without legal cover in the event of retaliation, several committee members declined to participate in the probe, a source familiar with their decision said. A member of the Discrimination Prevention Office eventually told one professor that the matter was not “serious enough” to merit review.

The allegations at the root of the aborted investigation did not become public until last month when the Free Beacon published whistleblower testimony alleging that racial preferences—illegal in California since 1996—have persisted at UCLA and produced a shocking drop in student performance. Whistleblowers described a series of cases in which Lucero, the admissions dean, argued for candidates based on their race and attacked officials for raising concerns about minority applicants with low test scores.

Past complaints against Lucero hadn’t gone anywhere because there weren’t enough witnesses willing to testify, a source with firsthand knowledge of the matter said. By withholding written assurances of non-retaliation, UCLA forestalled the reckoning, pushing the whistleblowers to go outside university channels and take the extraordinary step of speaking with the press.

A spokesman for UCLA medical school did not respond to a request for comment. UCLA’s public records office did not respond to a request for comment.

The revelations paint a picture of willful ignorance and bureaucratic subterfuge at the scandal-plagued medical school, which has for weeks attempted to stem the fallout from the Free Beacon report. They also raise new questions about what UCLA knew, and when, about why so many students were failing standardized tests.

Nearly a quarter of students in the class of 2025 failed three or more shelf exams, tests taken at the end of each clinical rotation to ensure familiarity with the basics. Failure rates in some subjects, such as internal medicine, rose tenfold between 2020, when Lucero took over admissions, and 2023, topping 50 percent in a few cohorts and raising alarm among professors.

Since the medical school’s grading system only fails students who score in the bottom 5 percent of test takers nationally, the numbers imply that a large share of UCLA students now underperform their peers in other, less elite programs.

The data have sparked a heated debate about the source of these struggles. Some say the school’s new curriculum, which crammed two years of preclinical classes into one and gave students less time to prepare for their rotations, is a more important factor than admissions. Others have argued that students have less incentive to study now that another standardized test, the Step 1 medical licensing exam, is pass/fail, a change made in 2020 to reduce racial disparities in exam scores. Still others have cited remote learning and the coronavirus pandemic.

It is possible that all, or none, of these explanations are partly to blame. But UCLA has kept a tight lid on the data that could help parse them—so tight that the medical school’s Faculty Executive Committee, which on paper has oversight of the admissions office, was in practice flying blind for many years.

“Internal oversight was never possible,” a former member of the committee said. “So now we are falling back on external oversight.”

By 2018, the committee was pressing the medical school for data on the link between incoming students’ grades and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores, on the one hand, and their performance at UCLA medical school on the other. Faculty also requested a detailed breakdown of matriculants’ MCATs—including the threshold below which students would not be admitted absent extenuating circumstances—since mean and median scores can mask large variations in performance.

None of that information was ever provided, two former members of the committee said. UCLA would either ignore the requests, which were made regularly and with growing urgency over a five-year period, or claim it hadn’t correlated the data.

The stonewalling extended to requests for whistleblower protection, creating a climate of fear among would-be witnesses and shielding the admissions committee from internal scrutiny.

In November 2023, a professor reached out on behalf of the whistleblowers to the medical school’s top legal official, Patricia Mor, to request a written guarantee that the whistleblowers would not be sanctioned for violating the nondisclosure agreement.

“No NDA can prevent someone from reporting impropriety or any illegal activity,” the professor wrote, copying the dean of UCLA medical school, Steven Dubinett. Even so, the whistleblowers were “requesting an official letter … that explicitly states that they are released from the NDA when reporting perceived immoral, unethical, and or illegal activity that occurred within the admissions committee meetings.”

“We don’t want to take legal action against [the medical school],” the professor added. “Can you please assist in providing this letter to our witnesses?”

The entreaties fell on deaf ears. Both Mor and Dubinett separately referred the professor to Joaquin Madrenas, the medical school’s vice dean for faculty, who argued that a written waiver—aimed at clarifying whistleblower protections—would undermine a “fair and unbiased investigation.” Mor herself wrote that “it is important that all due process procedures are followed,” implying that a waiver would undermine those protections. Neither official responded to a request for comment about how it would do so.

The professor tried again. “These investigations have been closed in the past because there were no witnesses who were willing to testify,” he wrote to Madrenas, referring to past complaints against Lucero lodged with the Discrimination Prevention Office. “I know that several of these witnesses will talk if they receive something in writing.”

“Failure to provide this letter,” the professor argued, “will be interpreted as [the medical school] trying to actively suppress something terrible that happened there.”

Madrenas wouldn’t play ball.

“I am asking that you let the proper process take place and let the investigators … do their job without interference,” he wrote. “You will be updated as the process moves forward.”

Around that time, the school began to stall and even sabotoge one professor’s efforts to obtain the data that had been withheld from the faculty oversight board. It did so, in an ironic turn of events, by exploiting the rules governing public requests.

The bureaucratic kabuki began on Nov. 14 when the professor emailed the medical school’s dean of student affairs, Lee Miller, for data on admissions metrics and student outcomes. Miller said he’d be happy to help, but never followed-up.

A few days later the professor received an email from UCLA’s public records office acknowledging “your request” from “November 14.” The professor—who had never contacted that office—received nothing for months and eventually pinged Miller again for an update.

Miller replied on Jan 10 that his hands were tied because of the phantom public records request, which he claimed had prevented him from turning over the data.

“Following our last correspondence, I learned of your public records request which is being coordinated by UCLA Information Practices,” Miller wrote. “I was then advised that I must forward the collated data directly to those responding to your request, which I understand is consistent with UCLA’s processes.”

Miller, who did not respond to a request for comment, added that he had given the materials to the public records office.

Almost half a year later, the data still have not seen the light of day. The professor has received four emails from the public records department kicking the can down the road, saying it will take an additional month to complete the request each time the deadline approaches.

“We apologize, but the review process has not yet been completed on your attached Public Records Act request,” the notes from the office read. “Your patience is very much appreciated.”

As of now, the estimated completion date is June 28.

The post UCLA Was Poised To Launch Its Own Investigation of Medical School Admissions—But Refused To Protect Whistleblowers From Retaliation appeared first on Washington Free Beacon.

The University of California, Los Angeles, medical school has gone to extraordinary lengths for over five years to shield its admissions practices from internal scrutiny, stonewalling data requests from concerned professors and refusing to assure admissions officials that they would not face retaliation for cooperating with an internal probe of the school’s admissions office, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation and documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
The post UCLA Was Poised To Launch Its Own Investigation of Medical School Admissions—But Refused To Protect Whistleblowers From Retaliation appeared first on Washington Free Beacon.[#item_full_content]

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