Sunday, April 13, 2008

Did Politics Trump MCAT in an Admissions Decision at the University of Florida?

Several stories in the Gainesville (Florida) Sun and the Florida Alligator suggest issues with the leadership of the University of Florida College of Medicine. As first reported in the Sun,

In a move that breaks with the norms established by medical school accreditors, the dean of the University of Florida's College of Medicine has opted to admit a student from a politically connected family, even though the student didn't have the backing of the Medical Selection Committee.

Kone wouldn't name the student, but sources close to the situation identified him as Benjamin Mendelsohn, the son of Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, a Hollywood ophthalmologist and a Republican fundraiser who was a grassroots organizer for Gov. Charlie Crist during his 2006 campaign.

Before Kone took over as dean in May 2007, Gov. Crist sent a letter to UF in February 2007 on Mendelsohn's behalf. The letter, addressed to UF's admissions officer and copied to UF President Bernie Machen, urged UF to admit Mendelsohn to the Junior Honors Medical Program, an accelerated seven-year program that combines bachelor's and medical degrees.

'I have known Benjamin and his family for several years and know that Benjamin's affiliation with the University of Florida will mutually enhance the reputation of both Benjamin and the Medical Program,' Crist's letter states.

In 2006, the Mendelsohn family gave at least $33,257 to political candidates, 94 percent of which went directly to Republicans, according to the Florida Department of State's Division of Elections. Of that money, $1,682 went to Crist, including a $500 donation from Benjamin Mendelsohn himself.

Alan Mendelsohn is a known fundraiser in the medical community. In 2005, he held a fundraiser in his own home where more than 150 physicians raised more than $100,000 for Crist, according to a news release from the Florida Medical Political Action Committee.

The Dean denied that politics influenced his decision.

'I can't even comment that there were any political connections that this person had, but I certainly wasn't influenced by any outside forces,' Kone said Thursday.

'There was no political influence related to this thing,' Kone added in a second interview Thursday night. 'There never will be. There never has been. This was an exceptional student, and I wish to God I could even tell you about (the student's) credentials.'
The Dean also asserted that he had the power to admit the student against the wishes of the committee. It appears, however, that his action may have violated rules set by medical school accreditors.

The move breaks with procedures described by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which provides accreditation to UF and medical schools throughout the U.S. and Canada.

'The final responsibility for selecting students to be admitted for medical study must reside with a duly constituted faculty committee,' according to the accrediting body's standards.

Furthermore, the accreditation standards say 'the selection of individual students must not be influenced by any political or financial factors.'

Barbara Barzansky, co-secretary of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education at the American Medical Association in Chicago, said the central role of faculty in admissions is well-established in the medical community.

'I think the standard speaks for itself. It expects that there be a faculty decision around admission,' she said.

'Deans may be under pressure from groups, alums, sometimes the Legislature, depending on the type of school and the location,' she added.

A follow-up in the Gainesville Sun suggested more irregularities in the admissions process. First, it appears the student had never taken the MCAT, a test usually required as a prerequisite to medical school admission.

When the committee considered the 2008 application of Benjamin Mendelsohn, the son of a prominent Republican fundraiser and contributor, Mendelsohn had not taken the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, according to three members of the selection committee and two other sources close to the situation. The MCAT is a standard admissions requirement for regular admission to the program, selection committee members said.

A peculiar memo to medical school administrators, and copied to University President Bernie Machen, suggested that the Dean's actions may have had even murkier origins.

In the e-mail, time-stamped Friday at 10:52 p.m., Kone said Machen's staff did not 'sho(o)t straight' when he met with them, adding that they were not sufficiently courteous to him when they discussed the admissions issue.

'I don't know if it was cowardice, a lack of compassion, or what, but it is symptomatic of why this university is stuck in mediocrity and has been since I left here 13 years ago,' wrote Kone, a former UF student and faculty member.

Kone said that he followed university precedent, 'delivered a great student. Took many bullets for the team. Protected the mother ship.'

Asked whether Kone's reference to protecting the 'mother ship' implied that he was pressured to accept the student, Machen responded Wednesday, 'Please don't make inferences that would be pure conjecture . . . I assure you neither I nor any member of my staff had any involvement in the medical student admission decision.'

Finally, it appears that faculty are disturbed, but fearful of speaking up.

Several faculty members who contacted The Sun said they feared what might happen to their careers if they were publicly critical of the dean's actions. As evidenced by his Friday e-mail, Kone has openly criticized those with whom he disagrees - even Machen's own staff.

Obviously, there are some fuzzy aspects to this story. We may not have heard anything like a final version yet.

What is most disturbing about it, however, are the implications that medical school leadership may have been acting at odds with the institution's mission. In particular, it appears that at least one admission decision may have been affected by politics rather than students' credentials, and faculty are afraid to criticize it. The integrity of the admissions process is fundamental to the integrity of the medical school. Suppression of dissent clashes with the academic ideal of free enquiry. Finally, power within this school seems to have centralized to an unusual extent. Transforming the corporate culture of academic medical institutions into central domination by an "imperial CEO," as is now common in business, is fraught with danger for institutions that are supposed to be about excellent patient care, and discovering the disseminating the truth.


Anonymous said...

Egalitarianism! Alive and well at U/F.


Anonymous said...

As a physician that often asks his college bound student patients what they plan on doing with their lives including college selection, I am amazed at how competitive applications are for UF undergraduate programs. Based on the SAT scores I am hearing as well as letters I have written for TOP notch premed students, I can only extrapolate how ferociously competitive the UF college of medicine, selection/admission process is. The lesson of the Mendelsohn applicant is a well polished clinical pearl on how to survive and thrive in the field of modern medicine. What most people do not understand is how "old boy" network the selection process is at every level of modern medical educations. Medical school, residency, fellowship only narrow the field based on who you know NOT what you know. This infertile process only reaps mediocre physicians who perpetuate the "old boy" network of the future with mediocre medical ability, skills, and medical knowledge. On an unrelated note, if raising money for a political candidate is what is needed to allow me quiet enjoyment of my profession, I will gladly write the check to Illegitimi Non Carborundum.

Anonymous said...

Prior to medical school I worked full time as a research technician and after work I would study for the MCAT late into the night. In college, I was a disorganized student and did not take the test when the pre-requisite classes were fresh in my head. By the time I realized I wanted and needed to go to medical school, the MCAT test subjects were mediocre grades years in my past. To make matters worse my father required round the clock home care being left paralyzed and aphasic by a stroke. After work, I would often study in the local college lecture hall thinking if I could just do well on this test, I could be admitted to medical school and that would please my father. I couldn't even think about my mother who came home from her busy schedule as a physician only to care for my father while I studied late into the night away from home. I remember the day I took the test, we started at 8 am and finished by 6 pm. I felt good, confident that I had done well. When I opened the letter with my MCAT scores I was so pleased, it felt like the sun was only shining on me. I rushed inside to show them to my father, his aphasia was dense and this nuclear physicist's vocabulary was reduced to about 20 words, yet his smile was clear he understood the significance of the small printout in my hand.

When I read this story about a Florida ophthalmologists son who was admitted without ever taking the MCAT I am truly disappointed. The student should have taken the test on principle. Either you can lift the weight or you cant. I sacrificed, my family sacrificed, and I did it. Why the son of a successful politically connected Ophthalmologist gets special treatment is an abomination and embarrassment to my profession and field.

Anonymous said...

maybe someone should fact check these stories before everyone jumps to all these conclusions. For one thing this student apparently was applying for the junior honors program which to my understanding is a 7 year program you apply to out of high school. He or any of the students applying for this program would not need to have taken the MCAT. Admissions is based on SAT score and high school performance. Somehow this story tries to make it seem like this student is circumventing the admissions process and getting a free ride into medical school without taking the MCAT. The writer should get his facts straight before people start reflexively shooting from the hip about the unfairness of everything. I'm no fan special priviliges but I'm even more tired of misinformation and knee jerk reactions.

Anonymous said...

Certainly not the first time UFCOM has based their admissions decisions on factors excluding merit. At UF, it's all about who you know, not what you know.

Anonymous said...

From the JHMP website at the University of Florida:

"By the end of the second year of undergraduate work, applicants must complete the following courses:

Biology - 8 semester hours (12 quarter hours).
General (Inorganic) Chemistry - 8 semester hours (12 quarter hours).
Organic Chemistry - 8 semester hours (12 quarter hours) OR Organic Chemistry - 4 semester hours (6 quarter hours) Biochemistry 4 semester hours (6 quarter hours) AND
Calculus - 8 semester hours (12 quarter hours)
General Physics - 8 semester hours (may be completed in the junior year).
The University's general education requirements in English, social sciences and humanities.
Applicants must have an overall GPA of at least 3.7 in the above courses. In addition, applicants must achieve an SAT score of at least 1200."

As you can see, no MCAT is required. College sophomores are accepted largely on the basis of performance on curricula and extracurricular volunteering/leadership/research roles. The fact that he didn't take the MCAT simply means that he didn't plan to apply to other medical schools a year before others; the UF JHMP doesn't require it.

Anne said...

The student in question was NOT granted admission through the JHMP. He was granted regular admission. In addition to not taking the MCAT, he also did not submit the secondary portion of his AMCAS application, but applied by special permission (given by Dr. Kone) in mid-February, which is well past the deadline. (All of this information is taken from an article in the Gainesville Sun)

halfmd said...

I did my fact checking. He applied through junior honors and was rejected. He then applied after the deadline for regular admissions (without ever taking the MCAT) and got the blessing of the dean, but not from the admissions committee.

This episode has been a real embarrassment for the university. Just read some of the emails that the dean has sent to his colleagues...

Anonymous said...

I think UF needs to WITHDRAW their acceptance to Ben. He didn't even BOTHER to apply within the correct timeframe and do what what was necessary to be able to be admitted (neither through the Junior Honors program nor UF's regular admission), so it follows that he must not really want it like everyone else.

This is going to RUIN UF's reputation and it is unfair to those who already go there or will be going there who have worked so hard to make it only to have the quality of their degree decrease because of this situation.

Even for his own sake and self respect, Ben needs to WITHDRAW. It's not fair, it's not right, and he should at least have some self respect.

Realistically speaking, he HAS the connections. The least he could have done was complete the application, do the MCAT, and have all of those BASIC requirements in place! I mean, did he not have ANY confidence in his performance or capabilities? I bet Crist wouldn't trust him to treat neither him nor his family.Why should he treat anyone else?!

Guess what, everyone was scared to death of the MCAT and everyone who cared enough about their decision to practice medicine STILL took it.

Machen is also to blame but Kone should have refused or stepped down--but he'd rather keep the title of Dean at the expense of the respect for members of the committee and medicine. And why is it that Kone's decision can override that of the committee??

Who's to say Ben won't buy himself some A's while he's at it once he decides he is too overwhelmed from any attempt at studying the material?! We're not too far from that folks!

I propose that :



Anonymous said...

Just heard about this at reunion. Scandalous!

I am first of all shocked and disgusted.

Kone should leave UF (I know he's no longer Dean but he is still a tenured faculty member and he seems like a bitter mediocre man who should not be there and should have no involvement teaching UF students or housestaff)

Heard Ben actually enrolled. Really unfair as he took the spot of a hard working honest student who would have been better qualified albeit not as well connected as if thats what make a good doctor.