On Aug. 26, a group of more than 150 medical students participated in a walkout organized by the White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL) at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) in response to the school’s alleged attempt to censor a talk on structural racism and its impact on patients, students and healthcare providers.
On Sept. 21, WC4BL released a statement addressing the situation, providing a timeline of the events that transpired and calling out misinformation allegedly shared by individuals from RWJMS regarding the situation.
“We chose not to address this misinformation directly until now because we wanted to give the RWJMS faculty and administration the opportunity to take accountability for their attempts to (deliberately) censor and silence the voices of the Black and Brown students who have been victimized by racism and microaggressions here at RWJMS,” WC4BL said in the statement. “Instead what we have seen from our faculty and administration has been quite the opposite. This is a significant step backward in addressing the way that these racist structures play out in our learning environments.”
The timeline of events first shows that Pamela Brug, Rutgers alumna and obstetrician-gynecologist, and Lyra Monteiro, assistant professor of history and American studies at Rutgers—Newark, were confirmed on Aug. 3 and Aug. 9 respectively to speak at the Patient-Centered Medicine 2 (PCM2): Uprooting Structural Racism in Medicine session scheduled for Aug. 25 and Aug. 26.
On Aug. 10, Brug requested that student organizers work to collect instances of microaggressions from the RWJMS community that have occurred during their time at the school in order to create a video to be played during her talk, according to the statement. The purpose of this video was to help demonstrate the ways in which structural racism impacts medical students and professionals in their daily lives.
WC4BL said that Paul Weber, associate dean for continuing medical education and a PCM2 course director, and Brad Kamitaki, health equity thread director at RWJMS, expressed no complaints in a call on Aug. 16 to Brug and told the student organizers that they wanted to inform Student Affairs of the video, according to their statement. The student organizers agreed to this.
On Aug. 17, Kamitaki reached out to student organizers, requesting a call to talk about the microaggressions aspect of the session.
“During this call, the student organizers were informed that the faculty was concerned that compiling these solicitations from students regarding their experiences with racial microaggressions at RWJMS would make the school ‘look bad and racist,’” WC4BL said in the statement.
But after the video was sent to faculty and the administration on Aug. 20, course directors, health equity thread directors and Student Affairs allegedly expressed no concerns with its contents, with Student Affairs stating awareness of the incidents covered, according to the statement.
The day after the approval of the video, faculty and Student Affairs reached out to the student organizers requesting that the video be edited so that all references linking the incidents to RWJMS be removed, according to the statement. They also instructed student organizers to remove two specific testimonials from the video due to various concerns.
“Student organizers were told that this was to protect the already strained relationships RWJMS has with pathway programs … in regards to racism and racial microaggressions,” WC4BL said in the statement. “We respectfully explained that though we understand the need for the school to protect its relationships with pathway programs, we do not agree with censoring these testimonials to protect the reputation of the school.”
In addition, student organizers clarified that the goal of the video was to validate the experiences of the individuals and be open about how these incidents occurred at RWJMS, according to the statement.
WC4BL said student organizers received overwhelming pressure to censor the video and brought Brug into the discussion on Aug. 22 so it could be settled by faculty. The video was approved as is two days later, according to the statement.
The evening before the session, student leaders received an email from PCM2 course director Joyce Afran stating the video would only be shown if the two testimonials previously mentioned and any information identifying RWJMS were omitted and if a disclaimer was inserted saying that the University makes no statements about the content’s accuracy, according to the statement.
The email also said that Janice Cato-Varlack, assistant dean of students and multicultural affairs at RWJMS, would give a talk about microaggressions in the case that Brug decided she could not do the talk with the edited video, according to the statement.
That same evening, Brug told the student leaders about her decision to not give her talk due to originally agreeing to speak with academic freedom as long as she shared factual information, according to the statement.
“I disagree with changing anyone’s lived experience,” Brug said. “It’s important to not discount what has occurred with the students. Editing their scenario does exactly that.”
On Aug. 26, WC4BL student leaders responded to the email sent by PCM2 course directors to reiterate that they do not agree with the requested edits and asked that the video not be used at all if it would not be played in its original format, according to the statement. That same day, WC4BL conducted their walkout.
“WC4BL executed the planned walkout and read out loud and distributed a prepared statement explaining why we decided to walk out of the session to the students and faculty who decided to join the walkout,” WC4BL said in the statement. “The students were joined by a majority of the class, several faculty members and an administrator.”
The student organizers received several emails the following day from the PCM2 course directors and health equity thread directors asking whether they could meet to discuss the walkout, according to the statement.
“We sent an email response that included Student Affairs, the PCM2 course directors, health equity thread directors and the WC4BL faculty advisor stating the significant physical, emotional and psychological toll these events have had on us and our academic responsibilities,” WC4BL said in the statement. “With two upcoming exams, we requested that all meetings with the faculty be postponed until after our exams.”
They also asked that all meetings about the walkout include WC4BL’s executive board and faculty advisor as well as Brug and Monteiro, according to the statement.
Afran, Weber and Kamitaki did not respond to The Daily Targum's request for comment.
On Sept. 10, Dean of RWJMS Robert L. Johnson released a statement to the medical student body and faculty detailing the actions that took place at the walkout and the planning that led up to the event.
“Not only was this statement constructed without the Dean or any deans speaking with the student organizers first, (but also) the statement also included several factual inaccuracies that negatively represented both the student organizers and the guest speakers,” WC4BL said in the statement.
WC4BL said these inaccuracies included claims that they worked with PCM2 course directors and health equity thread directors to design the session, that the course directors and faculty shared concerns with them regarding the video’s contents after viewing on Aug. 20 and that WC4BL initially accepted the suggested edits, according to the statement.
Monteiro also said that she did not lead the walkout, contrary to Johnson’s statement.
“I was there, but … I did not lead the walkout in any way,” she said. “I feel like that was one of their attempts to reframe what happened and diminish it because if the guest speaker leads the walkout, well, I mean, the guest speaker is not really part of the school … they're an outsider. They're a troublemaker.”
The WC4BL said their executive board met with Johnson on Sept. 27 and learned that he wrote his statement without watching their video.
Johnson said that dismantling structural racism is a goal the school shares with their students and that their next step will include re-engaging and joining together with them to ensure the goal is met.
“We acknowledge that asking students to modify a course presentation on microaggressions, though intended to help ensure privacy, led to expressions of concern and hurt by some students, which we hear, recognize and appreciate,” he said. “This was not intended to diminish the importance of understanding and addressing microaggressions, and we apologize.”
Also on Sept. 10, the M2 class received an email from the PCM2 course director stating that the debrief session regarding the situation, which was previously scheduled to include all students via an open forum, was now going to be held in small groups of 11 students, according to the statement.
WC4BL stated that this, along with how the groups would be led by faculty facilitators with no first-hand knowledge of what happened, created concern amongst their group and led them to reach out to the RWJMS Student Government Association (SGA) and other student leaders on campus.
Following this, the SGA drafted a letter signed by more than 37 student organizations asking that the debrief session in small groups be canceled and instead moved to an open forum, according to the statement.
“Students have indicated that they feel the current platform for discussion would be insufficient in allowing for full participation in the discussion of the issues at hand,” the letter stated. “More importantly, several students have reached out to us indicating they feel their mental health, wellbeing, and most importantly, sense of safety is jeopardized by having a small group discussion that would isolate and target them amongst their peers.”
The small group session was canceled afterward, WC4BL said.
Monteiro said that this behavior from RWJMS is part of a larger pattern from the school regarding structural racism and its treatment of medical students.
“I think that the medical school’s overall response to the walkout was predictable, in that they kind of pretended it didn't happen … I found the response appalling, and I also found it not surprising given the general attitude of the school,” she said.
Brug said she believes this situation makes it clear that the school is not ready to address structural racism.
“We as an educational institution should really address if we are willing to address racism or just continue to do check the box events, initiatives or policies,” Brug said. “I hope we are willing from top to bottom to take racism as it exists in our institution seriously.”
She said this involves transparency, such as showing the distribution of Black or indigenous individuals or people of color in different positions at RWJMS. She also said the administration should examine the incident as an example of microaggressions, racism and white fragility and eliminate the root cause.
WCB4L said that open conversations regarding racism and microaggressions at RWJMS have been seen as "sensitive content" only because they are not carried out often enough, according to the statement.
“We hope that by being completely transparent about this issue, we as a student body can begin to use our voices and demand that our institution take the necessary steps to truly begin addressing structural racism and the impacts of racism on the health of students and patients of color,” WCB4L said in their statement.