'A Failed Medical School': How Racial Preferences, Supposedly Outlawed in California, Have Persisted at UCLA

Up to half of UCLA medical students now fail basic tests of medical competence. Whistleblowers say affirmative action, illegal in California since 1996, is to blame.

Medical students (FatCamera/Grabien), Jennifer Lucero (UCLA)
May 23, 2024

Long considered one of the best medical schools in the world, the University of California, Los Angeles's David Geffen School of Medicine receives as many as 14,000 applications a year. Of those, it accepted just 173 students in the 2023 admissions cycle, a record-low acceptance rate of 1.3 percent. The median matriculant took difficult science courses in college, earned a 3.8 GPA, and scored in the 88th percentile on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

Without those stellar stats, some doctors at the school say, students can struggle to keep pace with the demanding curriculum.

So when it came time for the admissions committee to consider one such student in November 2021—a black applicant with grades and test scores far below the UCLA average—some members of the committee felt that this particular candidate, based on the available evidence, was not the best fit for the top-tier medical school, according to two people present for the committee's meeting.

Their reservations were not well-received.

When an admissions officer voiced concern about the candidate, the two people said, the dean of admissions, Jennifer Lucero, exploded in anger.

"Did you not know African-American women are dying at a higher rate than everybody else?" Lucero asked the admissions officer, these people said. The candidate's scores shouldn't matter, she continued, because "we need people like this in the medical school."

Even before the Supreme Court's landmark affirmative action ban last year, public schools in California were barred by state law from considering race in admissions. The outburst from Lucero, who discussed race explicitly despite that ban, unsettled some admissions officers, one of whom reached out to other committee members in the wake of the incident. "We are not consistent in the way we apply the metrics to these applicants," the official wrote in an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. "This is troubling."

"I wondered," the official added, "if this applicant had been [a] white male, or [an] Asian female for that matter, [whether] we would have had that much discussion."

Since Lucero took over medical school admissions in June 2020, several of her colleagues have asked the same question. In interviews with the Free Beacon and complaints to UCLA officials, including investigators in the university's Discrimination Prevention Office, faculty members with firsthand knowledge of the admissions process say it has prioritized diversity over merit, resulting in progressively less qualified classes that are now struggling to succeed.

Race-based admissions have turned UCLA into a "failed medical school," said one former member of the admissions staff. "We want racial diversity so badly, we're willing to cut corners to get it."

This story is based on written correspondence between UCLA officials, internal data on student performance, and interviews with eight professors at the medical school—six of whom have worked with or under Lucero on medical student and residency admissions.

Together, they provide an unprecedented account of how racial preferences, outlawed in California since 1996, have nonetheless continued, upending academic standards at one of the top medical schools in the country. The school has consequently taken a hit in the rankings and seen a sharp rise in the number of students failing basic standardized tests, raising concerns about their clinical competence.

"I have students on their rotation who don't know anything," a member of the admissions committee told the Free Beacon. "People get in and they struggle."

It is almost unheard of for admissions officials to go public, even anonymously, and provide a window into confidential deliberations, much less to accuse their colleagues of breaking the law or lowering standards. They've agreed to come forward anyway, several officials told the Free Beacon, because the results of Lucero's push for diversity have been so alarming.

"I wouldn't normally talk to a reporter," a UCLA faculty member said. "But there's no way to stop this without embarrassing the medical school."

Within three years of Lucero's hiring in 2020, UCLA dropped from 6th to 18th place in U.S. News & World Report's rankings for medical research. And in some of the cohorts she admitted, more than 50 percent of students failed standardized tests on emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics.

Those tests, known as shelf exams, which are typically taken at the end of each clinical rotation, measure basic medical knowledge and play a pivotal role in residency applications. Though only 5 percent of students fail each test nationally, the rates are much higher at UCLA, having increased tenfold in some subjects since 2020, according to internal data obtained by the Free Beacon.

That uptick coincided with a steep drop in the number of Asian matriculants and tracks the subjective impressions of faculty who say that students have never been more poorly prepared.

One professor said that a student in the operating room could not identify a major artery when asked, then berated the professor for putting her on the spot. Another said that students at the end of their clinical rotations don't know basic lab tests and, in some cases, are unable to present patients.

"I don't know how some of these students are going to be junior doctors," the professor said. "Faculty are seeing a shocking decline in knowledge of medical students."

And for those who've seen the competency crisis up close, double standards in admissions are a big part of the problem. "All the normal criteria for getting into medical school only apply to people of certain races," an admissions officer said. "For other people, those criteria are completely disregarded."

Led by Lucero, who also serves as the vice chair for equity, diversity, and inclusion of UCLA's anesthesiology department, the admissions committee routinely gives black and Latino applicants a pass for subpar metrics, four people who served on it said, while whites and Asians need near perfect scores to even be considered.

The bar for underrepresented minorities is "as low as you could possibly imagine," one committee member told the Free Beacon. "It completely disregards grades and achievements."

Lucero did not respond to a request for comment.

Several officials said that they support holistic admissions and don't believe test scores should be judged in isolation. The problem, as they see it, is that the committee is not just weighing academic merit against community service or considering how much time a given student had to study for the MCAT. For certain applicants, they say, hardship and community service seem to be the only things that matter to the majority of the committee's 20-30 members, many of whom were handpicked by Lucero, according to people familiar with the selection process.

"We were always outnumbered," an admissions officer told the Free Beacon, referring to committee members who expressed concern about low grades. "Other people would get upset when we brought up GPA."

Lucero hasn't been kind to dissenters. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, six people who've worked with her described a pattern of racially charged incidents that has dispirited officials and pushed some of them to resign from the committee.

She has lashed out at officials who question the qualifications of minority candidates, five sources said, suggesting naysayers are "privileged," implying that they are racist, and subjecting them to diversity training sessions.

After a Native American applicant was rejected in 2021, for example, Lucero chewed out the committee and made members sit through a two-hour lecture on Native history delivered by her own sister, according to three people familiar with the incident. No applications were reviewed that day, an official present for the lecture said.

In the anesthesiology department, where Lucero helps rank applicants to the department's residency program, she has rebuffed calls to blind the race of candidates, telling colleagues in a January 2023 email that, despite California's ban on racial preferences, "we are not required to blind any information."

That alone could get UCLA in legal trouble, according to Adam Mortara, the lead trial lawyer for the plaintiffs in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the Supreme Court case that outlawed affirmative action nationwide.

Asking for information about an applicant's race when "no lawful use can be made of it" is "presumptively illegal," Mortara said. "You can't have evidence of overt discrimination like this and not have someone come forward" as a plaintiff.

Lucero has even advocated moving candidates up or down the residency rank list based on race. At a meeting in February 2022, according to two people present, Lucero demanded that a highly qualified white male be knocked down several spots because, as she put it, "we have too many of his kind" already. She also told doctors who voiced concern that they had no right to an opinion because they were "not BIPOC," sources said, and insisted that a Hispanic applicant who had performed poorly on her anesthesiology rotation in medical school should be bumped up. Neither candidate was ultimately moved.

Lucero's comments from the meeting were flagged in an email to UCLA's Discrimination Prevention Office, which has received several complaints about her since 2023, emails show. The office has declined to act on those complaints on the grounds that they aren't "serious enough" to merit an investigation, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation. The Discrimination Prevention Office did not respond to a request for comment.

The focus on racial diversity has coincided with a dramatic shift in the racial and ethnic composition of the medical school, where the number of Asian matriculants fell by almost a third between 2019 and 2022, according to publicly available data. No other elite medical school in California saw a similar decline.

As the demographics of UCLA have changed, the number of students failing their shelf exams has soared, trends professors at the medical school say are connected.

Between 2020, the year Lucero assumed her post, and 2023, when the first classes she admitted were taking their shelf exams, the failure rate rose dramatically across all subjects, in some cases increasing tenfold relative to the 2020 baseline, per internal data obtained by the Free Beacon.

"UCLA still produces some very good graduates," one professor said. "But a third to a half of the medical school is incredibly unqualified."

The collapse in qualifications has been compounded by UCLA's decision, in 2020, to condense its preclinical curriculum from two years to one in order to add more time for research and community service. That means students arrive at their clinical rotations with just a year of courses under their belt—some of which focus less on science than social justice.

First-year students spend three to four hours every other week in "Structural Racism and Health Equity," a required class that covers topics like "fatphobia," has featured anti-Semitic speakers, and is now the subject of an internal review. They spend an additional seven hours a week in "Foundations of Practice," which includes units on "interpersonal communication skills" and, according to one medical student, basically "tells us how to be a good person." The two courses eat up time that could be spent on physiology or anatomy, professors say, and leave struggling students with fewer hours to learn the basics.

"This has been a colossal failure," one professor posted in April on a forum for medical school applicants. "The new curriculum is not working and the students are grossly unprepared for clinical rotations."

Nearly a fourth of UCLA medical students in the class of 2025 have failed three or more shelf exams, data from the school show, forcing some students to repeat classes and persuading others to postpone a different test, the Step 2 licensing exam, that is typically taken in the third year of medical school and is a prerequisite for most residency programs.

Around 20 percent of UCLA students have not taken Step 2 by January of their fourth year, according to the data. Ten percent have not even taken the more basic Step 1—an "extremely high number," one professor said, that will force many students to extend medical school.

"It's a combination of a bad curriculum and bad selection," another professor said, referring to the admissions process. Some students are accepted with GPAs so low "they shouldn't even be applying."

UCLA did not respond to a request for comment.

As medical schools around the country adjust to the Supreme Court's affirmative action ban, the experience of UCLA offers a preview of how administrators may skirt the law and devise public-spirited excuses for violating it.

Lucero has told the admissions committee that each class should "represent" the "diversity" of California, including its remote and rural areas, so that graduating students will return to their hometowns and beef up the medical infrastructure there, officials say.

Race is rarely mentioned outright, and unlike the committee for anesthesiology residents, the committee for students does not see the race or ethnicity of applicants.

Instead, officials say, Lucero uses proxies like zip codes and euphemisms like "disadvantaged" to shut down criticism of unqualified candidates, citing a finding from the Association of American Medical Colleges that, technically, most students with below-average MCATs make it to their second year of medical school. How well they do after that point goes undiscussed and undisclosed.

"We have asked for metrics on how these folks actually do," one committee member said. "None of that is ever divulged to us."

Update 05/24/24, 9:20 a.m: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a fourth of UCLA medical students failed three or more shelf exams in 2021. The story has been updated to reflect that a fourth of UCLA medical students in the class of 2025 have failed three or more shelf exams.