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How one medical school diversified its student body under an affirmative action ban

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Within weeks, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases involving affirmative action in higher education. And given the strong conservative majority, many expect the court to further restrict the role that race can play in college admissions. Well, here in California, public universities have not been permitted to consider race in admissions since 1996. Yet the University of California at Davis now has the third-most diverse medical school in the entire country according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Doctor Mark Henderson practices internal medicine, and he has run the admissions process for the UC Davis Med School for 17 years. Welcome to the show, Dr. Henderson.

MARK HENDERSON: Thanks very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

CHANG: It's a pleasure to have you. So can we just first talk about why having a diverse student body in a medical school is especially important to you?

HENDERSON: Absolutely, Ailsa. Our school's committed to meeting health care needs of our region and our state, and that includes many hard-to-reach rural, tribal and other underserved populations. But in order to do so, we need to reach out and recruit students from such communities who often face significant barriers in the educational system or financial barriers. But in the long run, they're more likely to eventually practice and serve such communities, so they can help reduce health disparities that we're all familiar with.

CHANG: Well, I can imagine some people might be asking, sure, diversity at a medical school is a totally worthy goal, but isn't it just as important, if not more important, to bring in students with the highest MCAT scores or the best grades or other impressive credentials on paper? What do you say to that argument?

HENDERSON: Well, I would start by saying what makes a good doctor is much more than a GPA. It takes perseverance, grit, teamwork and honestly the ability to establish trust and confidence in patients who come from all walks of life. And to be honest, currently medicine doesn't really reflect the patients we serve. Nationally, over half of medical students come from the top quintile of family income. Individuals who come from the spectrum of humanity - the spectrum of society have something different to offer. I've been a physician for many decades, and nobody ever asks me about my GPA, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Me neither, and yet I stressed so much about it decades ago.

HENDERSON: Right (laughter).

CHANG: But let me ask you - OK, so you look at income level in terms of the applications you get to your medical school. Do you also look at the willingness of the student to return to their communities if it's a community that is currently underserved in terms of health care needs?

HENDERSON: Absolutely. I mean, there's a concept in admissions called holistic admissions, which you may be familiar with. The idea of that is that we deemphasize traditional academic metrics like grades or test scores because they often relate to privilege or financial resources.

CHANG: Exactly.

HENDERSON: Instead, we look for attributes or experiences or commitment to work in areas that are likely to serve society's needs. So, for instance, 20- to 25% of Americans live in rural areas, yet only about 5% of the graduates of medical schools eventually practice in such areas. We've created a number of what I call pathway programs that are focused on workforce needs - such as rural health, primary care, care of tribal and indigenous communities - where they can have experiences to build their skills. Not to mention, if they're from those communities, it helps keep that connection.

CHANG: Right. Well, if the Supreme Court decides to further restrict race as a factor in college admissions, how do you expect that to affect the practice of medicine ultimately in this country?

HENDERSON: Well, using California as an example, as you said in your introduction, where affirmative action was banned in 1996, I mean, I would predict similar declines in racial ethnic diversity on college and medical school campuses across the country. And so I would advise other schools to be looking at their own practices, what is working within the rubric of holistic admissions, 'cause I think every - there are many, many good examples of how to do this. You have to keep the mission in mind. In my view, medicine is a public good. We have an obligation to produce physicians that actually meet the needs of society, and I don't think, you know, necessarily, we've been doing that very well.

CHANG: Dr. Mark Henderson of the University of California at Davis medical school, thank you so much for your work and for your time in this interview.

HENDERSON: Was a pleasure. Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.