UVA Med School Under Fire for Expelling Student Who Questioned Microaggressions

UVA Jefferson statue
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May 18, 2021

University of Virginia medical school dean David Wilkes came under fire Tuesday after a group of congressmen criticized the school's 2018 expulsion of a student who questioned the validity of microaggressions.

Virginia Republicans Ben Cline, Bob Good, and Morgan Griffith and UVA alum Rep. Chip Roy (R., Texas) asked Wilkes to meet and discuss the punishment of former medical school student Kieran Bhattacharya, who critiqued a proposed definition of microaggressions in 2018. In the letter, the representatives called the university's expulsion of Bhattacharya "incredibly concerning" and worthy of "examination and discussion."

Microaggressions are subtle words or actions that, while not intentional, are perceived as racially insensitive. Some colleges have infringed on student and faculty free speech in order to protect students from such slights. Students at Cornell University defended a racially segregated rock climbing course because it protected minority students from microaggressions, such as "the names of some outdoor climbing routes."

The University of Virginia banned Bhattacharya from campus after he attended an October 2018 panel on microaggressions and asked Dean Beverly Colwell Adams to clarify a proposed definition of the term.

"Is it a requirement, to be a victim of microaggression, that you are a member of a marginalized group?" Bhattacharya asked during a question-and-answer session following the presentation.

Bhattacharya pressed Adams after she said marginalized groups were not the only microaggression targets—which, he said, contradicted a slide she presented earlier. Adams and Bhattacharya sparred for a few minutes, with Bhattacharya displaying conduct that professor Nora Kern deemed inappropriate. Kern reported Bhattacharya and claimed he violated university policy.

The university's Academic Standards and Achievement Committee required Bhattacharya to attend counseling for his behavior prior to going back to class. Bhattacharya questioned that decision and at a later hearing was accused of being "aggressive" and "threatening."

Bhattacharya was suspended and later banned from campus. He filed suit against the university in September 2019. A federal judge on March 31 allowed the case to move forward.

University of Virginia spokesman Brian Coy told the Washington Free Beacon that the school ousted Bhattacharya not because of his speech—a claim Coy called "baseless"—but rather to protect other students.

"[A]s the university's filing in answer to the plaintiff's claim in this case makes clear, the student in question was dismissed from the School of Medicine after a series of incidents and repeated instances of erratic behavior that raised security concerns as well as questions about his professionalism and fitness to practice medicine," Coy said in a statement. "In response to these incidents, the university took action to protect the safety of other students and our community."

The congressmen say the University of Virginia's handling of the case counters the ideas of its founder, President Thomas Jefferson, as well as President James Madison, who advised Jefferson during the school's construction.

"We question how the university's actions toward Mr. Bhattacharya support the ideals that Jefferson and Madison so ardently defended," the letter reads. "These actions appear to starkly undermine Jefferson's vision of this institution. As did the founders, we believe it is imperative that students can freely speak, question, and discuss ideas without fear of reprisal."