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Medical students vocalize opposition to newly appointed interim dean

Medical students opposed the appointment of Dr. Steven Dubinett as interim dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine in a letter addressed to UCLA administrators, citing a lack of transparency and input from student trainees and faculty. (Lauren Man/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Victoria Li and Anushka Chakrabarti

Oct. 14, 2021 8:53 a.m.

Medical students expressed their opposition to the recent appointment of Dr. Steven Dubinett as the interim dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine in an email to medical school administrators.

The Aug. 30 letter – signed by student leaders from all existing medical school classes as well as organizations representing students of color, LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities – came three days after an announcement that Dubinett would serve as interim dean effective Sept. 1, succeeding former Dean Dr. Kelsey Martin. The letter was addressed to School of Medicine administrators, all medical students and University of California leadership.

In the email obtained by The Bruin, the student leaders demanded the decision to appoint Dubinett be rescinded immediately because they believed they were not informed about or involved with the details of his selection in a meaningful way. They also demanded the search be reconducted more transparently and with greater student involvement.

Dubinett was previously senior associate dean for translational research at the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for research at UCLA. He is also the founding director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

[Related: UCLA announces new interim dean of David Geffen School of Medicine]

The decision was made without significant input from students, trainees or faculty at the School of Medicine and instead by a small group of unnamed members, except for Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily Carter and Vice Chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences and CEO of UCLA Health John Mazziotta, according to the email from student leaders.

Student A, a medical student who helped draft the letter and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said medical students had only received an anonymous, one-question form where they could provide limited feedback. It asked them what they wanted to see in an interim dean.

Students could not nominate faculty members for consideration in the administration’s form, and they also did not receive any information on how their feedback would be used, they added.

“This pattern of decision-making is just totally unacceptable to the student body,” Student A said. “We refuse to stand for a process that did not include us, that did not include our concerns or voices for an interim dean who’ll be leading the school at least for the next two years, perhaps more.”

According to the email from students, the interim dean position is an appointment for up to two years and would be responsible for developing new curriculum, transitioning back to in-person activities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and managing other initiatives to address health inequity across Los Angeles.

UCLA maintains that the selection process involved enough input from a representative group of stakeholders.

Carter and Mazziotta said in an emailed response to the students’ letter that they followed the university’s standard process for selecting interim deans. The search is different from the one used for permanent deans, which happens over a longer period of time and relies on more community engagement, they said, adding that a swift appointment was necessary to avoid a gap in leadership and delayed progress.

“With input from hundreds of members of the DGSOM community, campus and UCLA Health leadership interviewed a diverse slate of candidates and evaluated them in part on a demonstrated commitment to building and sustaining environments where people of all backgrounds can thrive,” said Phil Hampton, a spokesperson for UCLA Health and the School of Medicine.

However, some students believed there was still a lack of transparency regarding the exact details of the selection process.

They did not receive any written policy or documents supporting the administration’s claims about a standard procedure for interim dean, Student A said.

“They said their process is good, their process makes sense, but they haven’t told us what it is,” said Student B, a medical student who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

[Related: Graduate students advocate for representation on dean selection committee]

The decision to appoint Dubinett was a part of a larger pattern of implicit and explicit racist decision-making, according to the emailed letter.

Student A said the administration overlooked other more qualified candidates with extensive and longstanding experience working with students at the School of Medicine, including Dr. Clarence Braddock, the vice dean for education who is also Black.

Carter and Mazziotta said in their response to the letter that Dubinett had deep experience in medicine, research and teaching. He also helped establish the equity, diversity and inclusion program at CTSI, they added.

However, Students A and B said they believed Dubinett’s appointment still broke protocol, which is to appoint the most senior or high-level dean at the medical school and that would have been Braddock, the executive vice dean.

“It’s not about us thinking that he’s the better candidate,” Student B said. “It’s about the fact that, procedurally, he should have been appointed.”

Dubinett said in an emailed statement that he plans to collaborate with the entire medical school community in advancing efforts to improve health equity.

“My highest priority and that of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is the improvement of health throughout the Los Angeles community,” Dubinett said. “We are committed to continued progress in enhancing infrastructure that reaches across disciplines, departments and other UCLA schools to ensure justice for those who have been marginalized and underserved, enhance opportunity and mitigate health disparities.”

Students were not the only ones concerned with the selection process.

The Black, Latinx and Native American Faculty Collective at the School of Medicine sent an email acquired by The Bruin to UCLA and UC leadership Aug. 31, demanding an emergency meeting regarding the lack of transparency in Dubinett’s appointment – one of multiple repeated attempts to call for increased community input, according to the email.

The collective later met with Carter and Mazziotta on Sept. 21 to discuss its concerns, calling for shared governance and more transparent, direct communication between the administration and medical school community.

[Related: Faculty express concerns over lack of diversity in UCLA Health’s hiring process]

“DGSOM students and faculty have been – and will continue to be – invited to participate in dialogue regarding diversity and inclusion and other priority topics,” Hampton said.

However, Student A said they were deeply frustrated with the response from medical school administrators.

“We have been just ignored and told that our concerns are not valid,” they said. “It’s at odds with the stated priorities of the institution.”

Student A said this incident was just one part of a worrying trend at UCLA Health over the past several years in terms of its priorities and public responsibilities.

According to the letter, UCLA Health purchased and closed a community hospital – Olympia Medical Center in Mid-Wilshire – without local input. The hospital served a population that is largely African American, low income and elderly, according to The Bruin.

UCLA Health has a duty to the health of LA residents regardless of their ability to pay, but the administration is prioritizing financial health instead, said Student C, a medical student who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

“UCLA Health leadership must stop making decisions behind closed doors,” the letter read. “The restructuring of DGSOM, a public institution, must go through a transparent and equity-centered process that involves student leaders, trainees, and faculty from the very beginning to the very end.”

Student C said they are not optimistic for change.

“I would love for them to prove us wrong,” they said. “I think that would be one small step in undoing the historical wrongs, but just given the precedent that’s been set and the lack of any conversation, … it’s hard, it’s hard to believe.”

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Victoria Li | Science and Health editor
Li is the 2021-2022 science and health editor. She was previously a contributor for the science and health beat. She is also a third-year human biology and society student at UCLA who enjoys writing about research and public health.
Li is the 2021-2022 science and health editor. She was previously a contributor for the science and health beat. She is also a third-year human biology and society student at UCLA who enjoys writing about research and public health.
Anushka Chakrabarti | News editor
Chakrabarti is currently the 2021-2022 News editor. She was previously the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the science and health beat, and she was a former contributor for online. She is also a third-year mathematics and economics student at UCLA.
Chakrabarti is currently the 2021-2022 News editor. She was previously the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the science and health beat, and she was a former contributor for online. She is also a third-year mathematics and economics student at UCLA.
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