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UCR School of Medicine: A Four Decade Road to Success

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Craig V. Byus reflects on crushing budget cuts, political arm twisting and watershed legislation dictating diversity

By Chris Levister

When the UC Riverside community gathers on December 13 for the dedication of its new School of Medicine Education building the event will celebrate a milestone four decades in the making.

In 1971 when then UCR Chancellor Ivan Hinderaker announced to the Inland Valley that he wanted to create a medical education program the reaction was swift, blunt and to the point: “that won’t happen”.

This was an idea that Hinderaker and Dr. Charles Young who went on the become president of UCLA had, but no one really knew if it could work says Dr. Craig V. Byus, Dean, Program Director and Professor of Biomedical Sciences at UC Riverside.

“When I came onboard 35 years ago we were told here’s the idea – make it work,” said Byus.

In the 1970s UCR was viewed as a backwater stepchild to UC flagships UCLA, Berkeley and San Diego. Enrollment hovered below 5,000 students. There was even talk that the campus could fold.

The idea for adding medical education was to attract more students and increase the region’s primary care physician workforce, said Dr. Byus.

The program lacked funding or a clear mission but lumbered on for several years until June 1974. Then (and current) Governor Jerry Brown approved the UCR Program in Biomedical Sciences.

“Finally a reason to celebrate,” recalls Dr. Byus.

The celebration was short lived. One year later Governor Brown abruptly vetoed the school’s funding from the budget and according to Dr. Byus promptly cancelled the program.

“The belief was the program was too expensive and that California could not afford more medical schools. It was a crushing blow.”

The action by Brown sent Chancellor Hinderaker and than Senator Bob Presley to Sacramento on a mission to lobby for reinstating the monies.

After some good old fashion political arm twisting Brown agreed to return the funds to the budget, said Dr. Byus.

Enrollment at UCR exploded and its medical education program populated overwhelmingly by Asian and white students flourished.

“We were highly motivated and very successful academically.”

Fast forward twenty plus years the face of medicine was changing along with the demographics of the Inland region.

Working class families and persons of color moved in. The need for primary care physicians soared and there was concern about the lack of diversity in medical schools in California and across the country, said Dr. Byus.

1995 enter the James Wesley Vines Medical Society, a group of Inland black doctors led by Ernest Levister Jr. M.D., a San Bernardino internist.

“We discovered by accident that UCR’s biomedical pre-med program while successful in its own right was exclusionary to disadvantaged students and that in its 28 year history, the program graduated one African American physician and a handful of Latinos. That was unacceptable,” said Levister.

The group called for structural changes to allow more disadvantaged students a shot at slots in the Thomas Haider Program in Biomedical Sciences, a partnership between UCR and the UCLA School of Medicine. The program allowed students to spend five years of medical school studying at UCR before transferring to UCLA for the final two years.

After a series of discussions in the mid 1990s, UCR added mentoring programs for five Inland high schools and summer math and science programs aimed at helping disadvantaged students.

However, after several years the physician’s group felt that UCR’s commitment to changing the program and boosting minority graduation rates was insincere and fizzling. At one point the university rejected a black student who had achieved Phi Beta Kappa (he has since graduated from UC San Francisco Medical School.) University officials argued changes were being made but the process was moving slowly.

In 2000, the group passed a resolution saying it would no longer recommend the UCR program to minority students. The resolution was mailed to lawmakers, other medical schools, high school counselors and major medical societies. The group then met with lawmakers in the spring of 2001.

In May of 2002, lawmakers approved a landmark measure making future funding for the Haider program contingent on structural changes.

The Legislature’s action was unprecedented because the University of California does not answer to lawmakers on the specifics of academic programs. But the Legislature can wield power through the budget.

“We tried very hard to be respectful of the UC system’s autonomy, but at some point, you have a responsibility to ask these questions and get answers,” said Rep Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto, than chairman of the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on education finance.

“The committee was more than frustrated,” he said.

“We in the UC were behind the times. Unfortunately the university was not willing to reformat the program so it got cancelled,” said Dr. Byus.

“Our goal was never to carve out a special set aside for blacks or other disadvantaged students rather to level the playing field for people of different backgrounds irrespective of race or what side of the tracks they come from,” said Dr. Levister.

The program now has a new mission statement “with emphasis upon the needs of the underserved, Inland and rural populations” of California.

The UCR School of Medicine depicts an Inland Empire that is changing – “embracing that change paved the way for a four year medical school,” said Dr. Byus. In June he was awarded the 2012 San Bernardino County Medical Society’s Outstanding Citizen Award.

“Had we not been forced to reformat the program to address the real medical and social needs of the Inland Empire we would not have the medical school today,” said Byus. That was the seminal moment..the turning point.”

“Our revamped mission is to educate and train primary care physicians rather than specialists, who will serve and live here,” said Dr. Byus. “That’s a win-win for everyone.”

His accomplishment could seem an act of collaboration. But making an idea work is not a leader’s only badge of honor. Another is speaking prickly truth for all the world to hear.

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