Feeling sympathetic toward white male medical school applicants who claim that discrimination kept them from getting into their school of choice is not easy for Bob Lee, associate dean and director of Minority Affairs in the School of Medicine. Lee grew up in a time and place where the thought of a young African American going on to become a doctor was, in his words, "pie in the sky."
"I was the only black student in my high school class to graduate from the college prep curriculum," said Lee. "I remember going to the college counseling session for the college prep group of students. The counselor looked at me and asked what I was doing there. I told her I was there for my college counseling. I didn't know what the route to college was because no one in my family had ever gone."
Lee's counselor said she didn't have time to talk with him individually because she had a meeting to attend. Instead, she hurriedly offered him a brochure on Howard University and suggested that he might want to apply there.
Those memories remain fresh in Lee's mind as he works to recruit African American and other minority students to apply for admission to Emory's medical school. "We are very much about the business of helping students of color gain access to medical education," Lee said. "We are charged with telling the story of Emory and getting the word out to prospective students of color. I see Emory as a school that embraces its students. We are here to encourage, support, direct and sometimes chastise students, but all in a spirit of promoting their well being."
Lee came to Emory two years ago after 22 years in minority student affairs at the University of Washington in St. Louis. The number of African American applicants to the medical school increased from 525 the year before he came Emory to 752 his first year. Last year that number exceeded 800.
Making as many minority students as possible aware that medicine is an option for them is crucial, said Lee, who holds an adjunct faculty appointment in the medical school. "Even in 1996, out of any 100 students of color who start medical school nationwide, probably no more than eight or nine come from a household where either parent is a physician," he said. "Usually if the parent is college educated, they are first and foremost teachers. But we still have a very large percentage of applicants of color for whom neither parent has gone to college and the applicant is the first one in the family to consider medicine at the physician level."
The picture for the typical white medical school applicant is very different, Lee said. "Out of 100 white students applying to or entering medical school, you can expect 30 or more to have come from a medical family at the physician level. So the students of color we are dealing with are people who are breaking new ground and thus may not know all the routes to follow. That's why I am always concerned when there are vocal and/or successful legal challenges to the work that we do. When I hear those intonations of, `I`ve been discriminated against because I'm a white male,' I just don't bleed many corpuscles. Even after 25 years of minority recruitment in medical education, out of 75,000 physicians in the United States, African Americans still account for less than 10,000."
A national leader
Lee's efforts in diversifying the medical profession have not been limited to his administrative roles at Washington and Emory. He has served as regional director, national vice chair and national chair for the Minority Affairs section of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). He also is a founding member of the National Association of Minority Medical Educators (NAMME), which was founded in 1975 after a white male medical school applicant claimed he was a victim of reverse discrimination in admissions.
"We really developed NAMME as a split from AAMC during that time," Lee recalled. "The AAMC was saying that their national body was the only spokesperson on the topic. But we were saying, `Wait a minute. We're the people working in the trenches.' And we also thought the AAMC was just being mealy-mouthed. So a group of us retired to our own suite and formed an organization right on the spot that became NAMME. In speaking out in defense of minority education and against the lawsuit the student had brought, we were able to speak forthrightly. But of course we were wearing our NAMME hat, and there was nothing AAMC could do to silence us, which led to some consternation on the part of AAMC."
Within the NAMME organization, Lee has served as regional vice director, regional director and national vice president. He also is serving as chair of Emory's President's Commission on the Status of Minorities for 1996-97.
Even at the age of 51, Lee is still somewhat awestruck at successes such as NAMME, particularly having been the ninth child of a coal truck driver and a domestic, neither of whom finished high school. "I feel blessed not only to have achieved through the encouragement of a lot of people, but also to be able to pay back that debt. If I can give hope, encouragement and direction to the young people who walk through my door, then I am very fortunate and blessed."