Frustration over med school admissions at McGill
|Montreal Gazette 04 May 2014 at 21:55|
MONTREAL — An external review done of the admissions process for the faculty of medicine at McGill University concludes that the faculty has taken a “defensible” path with changes it has made to how students are selected and in its emphasis on diversity, but also hints at the frustration and unhappiness the new direction has sparked among some of McGill’s traditional stakeholders.
That frustration may have translated into a decline in donations as the university’s financial vulnerability, particularly in light of seeking alumni and potential donors, is mentioned no less than seven times in the 13-page report.
The review — which was commissioned last spring, conducted last fall and made public this spring — makes recommendations about how the faculty should improve the way it communicates its message and on the process surrounding admissions.
It suggests that the assistant dean of Admissions, Equity and Diversity, Dr. Saleem Razack, should not also serve as chair of the admissions committee or chair of the multiple mini interview (MMI) review committee to avoid the appearance of combining roles “that should be entirely separate.”
However, the review doesn’t make recommendations about the admissions process itself — namely, the criteria used for selection purposes, the way the MMIs are conducted or how the CV and narrative required by applicants should be assessed.
When asked about that, Razack said the reviewers “were very happy with the way the process runs.” He also said that all of the recommendations are being studied with a goal of implementing them, but while he probably will soon step down as chair of the MMI review committee, he couldn’t give a clear answer about the admissions committee.
But one recommendation that likely won’t be implemented any time soon was the one to increase the number of interviews of applicants, because it is more “palatable” to be rejected after an interview. Razack said while he would love to grant more interviews, it also requires more resources and may not be feasible.
A story in The Gazette last summer described a palpable frustration among many in the urban anglophone community who believe the faculty’s increasing emphasis on diversity has put them at a disadvantage. They believe that such selection criteria as empathy, intelligence and dedication have been replaced with a growing emphasis on parental income, skin colour, language and rurality.
And with only about eight to 10 per cent of applicants getting in to medical school these days, a spot at a prestigious school like McGill is a little like winning the lottery — hence the fierce debate surrounding the admissions process.
Not only has there been grumbling about francophones taking spots away from anglophones, but there was concern about how francophones who are not required to take any language testing (whereas anglophones applying to the Universit de MontrÃÂ©al medical school need an 86 per cent on a difficult French test) can fare in a demanding English academic milieu.
That problem may be becoming more material than ever, judging by a letter sent to faculty recently by the medicine class of 2017 president, Nebras Warsi, outlining problems with the program’s new curriculum. It suggests that “high-stakes testing” can “unfairly penalize students for certain skills that they do not possess,” and then points to the diversity of the class, which has “many students whose first language is not English.” It then suggests that testing should focus on competence, not “English comprehension” (along with other “confounding variables”).
David Eidelman, the dean of medicine, said it may have been expressed in terms of language, but Warsi was really getting at a problem that had to do with the timing afforded on an exam, and he believes it’s “a misrepresentation” to characterize it differently.
But there are definitely those who believe it illustrates one potential problem with McGill’s decision to remove all obstacles for francophones wanting to study medicine there (in addition to the removal of the MCAT entrance exam, they can do interviews and their application letters in French). Another, suggested in the review, is a real perception problem with McGill’s push to increase diversity, particularly by courting more francophones (who have three other medical schools in Quebec to which they can apply and which are not particularly accommodating of anglophone students).
“Alumni and potential donors, recalling the McGill medical school demographics of a generation ago, before the intrusion of more recent stresses, will sense a vulnerability of their nostalgic medical school,” reads the report.
“The establishment of the Office of Admissions, Equity and Diversity, and the removal of the MCAT as a requirement, have been presented by external viewers as intending to further the selection of francophone applicants at the expense of anglophone applicants.”
It says the anglophone proportion has actually been stagnant and the francophone proportion has risen 11 per cent at the expense of “other first language speakers” over the last decade, but nonetheless many of these factors have exacerbated stakeholder groups, and that provincial austerity measures have made it tough and have made “dependence on happy alumni and donors ever greater.”
Razack has always maintained that McGill’s outreach programs to increase diversity have no impact on the excellence required of candidates, that demographic data is not used for selection purposes and there are no quotas for the program. He said he couldn’t comment on how donations may have been affected.
The review was conducted by Dr. Harold Reiter, an assistant dean at McMaster University, and Dr. Armand Aalamian, a medical chief with the CSSS de la Montagne and an assistant professor in McGill medicine.
They spent one day interviewing various deans, faculty and students to probe the “dissent” that has arisen from the faculty’s changing admissions direction — a direction they acknowledge has been hard to swallow by some in the anglophone community, but which they also emphasize is necessary to meet evolving accreditation standards.
But they didn’t speak to rejected students or accept comments from admissions committee members. Also, one of the external reviewers is actually internal, and Aalamian has a shared interest with Razack in that they co-hosted a meeting on equity, diversity and gender for the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada (AFMC) in May 2010.
Dr. Debra Finestone, an emergency room physician at St. Mary’s Hospital who has been a professor of medicine at McGill for 27 years, questioned the veracity of an external review that seems not so impartial.
“It’s complete garbage,” said Finestone, who is furious that her exceptionally qualified daughter is studying medicine in Israel as a result of being rejected by McGill. “In seeking validation for their process, they asked students who had been accepted and were in the class. I doubt they would get the same validation if they asked the question to a Montrealer with a 4.0 GPA, who volunteers at a cancer day centre and an abused women’s centre, tutors at-risk kids in math and science and has great recommendations, whether they really minded giving up their spot for some kid who hardly speaks English.”
She’s not convinced the review will address any of the problems with the changing admissions process.
“It’s not really external and what are they going to do about it? They’re not simply recruiting diverse applicants, they’re selecting students based on that,” she said. “The English community that has supported McGill for 150 years is being stabbed in the back.”
It is precisely that kind of bubbling resentment that the report says must be addressed, primarily through improved communications about the admissions process, underscoring the increased competition to get in (as the ratio of applicants to medical school seats has tripled in the last decade) and the accreditation requirement for increased diversity.
Most importantly, it stresses, the outreach done to improve diversity must be completely separate from the admissions process.
It commends the AED for dividing the two and applying individual meritocracy to student selection and diversity to pipeline programs.
But it acknowledges “the vision of inclusivity is not shared by all stakeholder groups” and “this is particularly challenging when the school is financially increasingly beholden to alumni and donors, a vital group, which does not unanimously share that vision.”
The emphasis on improved communications is part of the reason the faculty is holding a Town Hall on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the external review and the admissions process.
“We want to make sure our community knows what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and we are able to respond to concerns and comments they raise,” Razack said.