With time running out for their medical residency decisions, some applicants say they’re taking Tulane off their list of choices after the dismissal of a residency program director who had filed a discrimination lawsuit.
“I’ve already gone through med school as a Black woman, so I know how bad it can get,” said Farrah-Amoy Fullerton, who applied to the pediatrics program at Tulane. “I already made the decision a while ago that I was not going to subject myself to that for the next three years for residency.”
Fullerton is among a number of students who have reconsidered their choice to rank Tulane after Princess Dennar’s dismissal from her role as program director of the school’s medicine-pediatrics program. Dennar, the first and only Black woman to serve as a residency program director at Tulane, filed a lawsuit last fall alleging institutional racism and discrimination. Tulane has said that Dennar’s dismissal was the result of a review after her program received an accreditation warning, but Fullerton and others who have followed the situation see it as a reaction to Dennar’s lawsuit and her advocacy for residents who have also levied allegations of racism and sexism against members of Tulane’s faculty.
For students at the end of medical school like Fullerton, who was initially drawn to Tulane for its work in the New Orleans community, deciding where to spend a residency is a personal choice, and one that can shape the trajectory of their career.
“I’m putting a lot on the line just to stand by my ideals,” she said.
Another prospective resident, Alana Nichols, had almost given up on hearing from a medicine-pediatrics program in Louisiana when she got her Tulane interview late in residency application season. She grew up in Louisiana, did her undergraduate work there, and has many friends and relatives in the area. As a Black woman who put significant emphasis on a program’s approach to race and equity in her residency choices, she was thrilled to see a rare Black program director at a hospital so close to home.
“I didn’t care where I ended up — Dr. Dennar was going to be one of my mentors,” she said. “I felt like I see so much of myself in her.” Dennar, who did not respond to a request for comment, still holds her positions as an assistant professor and medical director of an affiliated clinic.
In January, when Dennar was still director of the residency program and conducting residency interviews, Nichols had a conversation with her over video. Even after a short chat, Nichols felt at home. She appreciated that Dennar fostered close relationships with her residents, mentoring those she worked with throughout their careers, and prioritized New Orleans’ diverse patient population.
Nichols moved Tulane to the top five slots of her rank list, the catalog of each applicant’s favored residency programs in order of preference. (Applicants and residency programs nationwide have until March 3 to finalize their rankings, which an algorithm then uses to make matches announced later in the month.)
Just weeks after her interview, though, Nichols learned in an email that Dennar was being replaced as the head of the pediatrics residency program. Nichols said that the message, sent to all of Tulane’s medicine-pediatrics applicants, came from a white woman who would be the interim director, despite the fact that Dennar had two associate directors of the program, both women of color. Within an hour of receiving the email, she was questioning Tulane’s position on her list. Nichols eventually took it off entirely.
She began discussing the email with a handful of other medicine-pediatrics applicants she’d met online and in group chats. They wanted to take action. They had a meeting and decided the best thing they could do was express their concerns as applicants of the program, and published an open letter sent to Tulane, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, and National Resident Matching Program that demanded that Dennar be reinstated to her role as program director and that the medical school leaders named in numerous complaints leave the institution.
The group started sharing their thoughts under the hashtag #DNRTulane, or Do Not Rank Tulane. Activists and leaders in medicine also started tweeting under the hashtag, condemning the allegations brought against Tulane in full view.
For applicants like Nichols and Fullerton who not only de-ranked Tulane, but also posted about the movement, sharing their positions so publicly comes with the risk that another institution might see it and count it, however wrongfully, against them as a candidate.
“It’s definitely something that I think about and I worry about every single day. And the closer we get to Match Day, the more my anxiety about that rises,” said Nichols. “All it takes is one or two people who don’t agree with that. It doesn’t make an entire institution bad, but it could stop you from ending up somewhere.”
For her, though, any institution that disapproves of speaking up about discrimination isn’t somewhere she’d want to spend her residency.
Nichols and others said they were also concerned about the dozens of testimonials from current Tulane residents and alumni about racist and sexist treatment. A group of Black female residents, “TheTulane7,” filed their own complaint to the university’s Office for Institutional Equity in 2018 regarding racist treatment during their training; Dennar publicly supported their effort.
In another report, this one published as an open letter, a third-year Tulane resident, a Black woman, recently described some of her own experiences with the program, including how she found an opened and dirty condom in her purse, and how a resident from another institution who worked at the same hospital tried to physically and through intimidation force her way into a call room that the resident was resting in.
“Though I am writing this letter alone, I am not alone in my experiences at [Children’s Hospital New Orleans],” the resident wrote.
As the matching decisions play out, students within Tulane have also come together to demand accountability and transparency around Dennar’s dismissal. A group known as the SLAM Coalition, made up of a number of Tulane medical school groups for underrepresented students, wrote a petition on the issue that has garnered signatures from nearly 500 medical students, trainees, and physicians from across the country, according to its site.
“We want to shape the types of programs that we want to be in,” said Londyn Robinson, a white medical student applying for residencies who did not apply to Tulane, but feels determined to speak up. “People are scared out of their minds,” that programs look good on Zoom — especially with no campus visits due to the pandemic — but in reality will create a toxic and abusive atmosphere like Tulane residents are detailing.
A spokesperson for Tulane told STAT that the institution understands concerns that have come up in the wake of Dennar’s dismissal. They plan to hire an outside consultant to “facilitate discussion and discovery” around racism and sexism.
For some applicants, what’s worse than the racism Dennar and others described is that Tulane did not acknowledge the situation when interviewing Black and other applicants of color. One applicant for medicine-pediatrics programs, who requested to remain anonymous due to their active applications, said that they might have still ranked the Tulane program if the school had been more open about existing problems. Instead, one of this applicant’s highest-ranked programs is run by a white man who acknowledged his embarrassment regarding his staff’s lack of diversity, but initiated a conversation about his plans to work on it.
“This is not just a Tulane issue, it’s an everywhere issue,” said Robinson.
Nichols and the other medicine-pediatrics applicants, meanwhile, are waiting to find out where they each might spend the next years of their training. She wants to see leaders in medicine work to meaningfully address the issues Dennar and others raised. To her, the choice she made isn’t a decision applicants should have to make.
“There are hundreds of different reasons why people still will rank Tulane, and I don’t judge them for that,” said Nichols. “I don’t think that the onus is on the applicant to fix what’s going on at Tulane at all, or the current residents. The responsibility is on Tulane’s leadership.”