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UNC Doctors Slam ‘Hurtful’ Surgeon Who Denounced Affirmative Action In Medical Schools

doctor performing surgery under light
Image CreditPexels/Anna Shvets

Dr. John Calhoon was smeared as ‘racist’ after he emphasized merit as the primary indicator of success in the surgery profession.


As it turns out, it is nearly impossible today not to trigger woke health care.

In January 2023, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS), a society of the leading heart surgeons in the nation, held a conference where the outgoing president, Dr. John Calhoon, emphasized merit as the primary indicator of success in the profession.

“Affirmative action is not equal opportunity,” he wrote in a PowerPoint presentation. The “best metric is whether someone does good.”

He also wrote that “defining people by color, gender, religion only tends to ingrain bias and discrimination.” 

This is of course true. Studies by Harvard University professor James Dobbin found that most diversity trainings and workshops have little to no effect on the perceptions of colleagues toward one another. They may even be counterproductive, with some studies reporting greater animosity toward other races out of annoyance at the heavy-handed nature of courses. 

Immediately, medical news outlets called Calhoon a racist, white privileged, and other monikers of derision, but they weren’t the only ones. The Society for Thoracic Surgeons condemned Calhoon’s slide in a statement, describing his talking points as “inconsistent with STS’s core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Mind guards at some surgery clinics also issued their own internal responses, and my organization Color Us United has found a particularly egregious one.

A source inside the University of North Carolina medical school provided me with the following email about the STS conference from the University of North Carolina Chair of General Surgery Caprice Greenberg and Vice Chair of so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for the Department of Surgery Luigi Pascarella:

The UNC surgery department chairs denounced Calhoon’s comments as “hurtful” and “insulting.” They said they “disagree with the essence of this Presidential message.”

Which parts of Calhoon’s speech did they disagree with? The message that merit should be the primary indicator of a good surgeon? The message that defining people by color, gender, or religion is wrong? These are commonsense principles that every American hopes a surgeon should believe in — for the patient’s sake.

Even his most controversial post, where he said affirmative action is not equal opportunity, is obviously true. Affirmative action means giving preference to those deemed “underrepresented communities,” which is a violation of equal opportunity (allowing people to compete on a level playing field).

It is a documented fact that medical schools practice widespread preferences for black and Hispanic individuals. Mark Perry, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, found that an Asian with a 6 percent chance of admission to a medical school has an 8 percent chance if he or she were white, a 31 percent chance if he or she were Hispanic, and an astounding 56 percent chance if he or she were black. Affirmative action does not create equal opportunities.

The audience Calhoon was speaking to was full of trained surgeons. They should be some of the smartest people in the country, but as soon as someone in their profession says something factual and inconvenient to their DEI regime, reason seems to disappear.

Perhaps reason disappears because such remarks hit an emotional soft spot. Greenberg and Pascarella said they denounce Calhoon’s remarks because they want to “create a culture of belonging” in the profession and be “inclusive.” Maybe these remarks seem harsh, or exclusive.

At the same time, however, “inclusion” can go far.

Let’s take a look at the surgery profession as a whole. A once grueling and hyper-competitive profession where one surgeon would graduate from a list of 12 at any one surgery department, the profession has since become much more collegial — you could say “inclusive.”

As one example, take a look at the Mortality and Morbidity conference, also known as the M&M conference referenced in the email from Pascarella and Greenberg. The M&M conference is an annual conference where surgeons soberly grill each other about the mistakes that other surgeons made that led to the deaths and otherwise bad outcomes of patients. It is reputed to be a difficult conference because of the painful self-examination of one’s own mistakes, but it is necessary to foster a sense of drive for perfection that all good surgeons need. Human lives depend on them.

This year, the theme of the first part of the M&M conference, at least for UNC Health, is diversity and inclusion. Pascarella and Greenberg say in this email that they will “discuss what we can do to further advance DEI as a core value in surgery both here at UNC and through our national organizations.”

The whole point of the M&M conference is to improve outcomes in mortality and morbidity rates in surgery clinics and to push doctors to pursue perfection. DEI as is currently practiced attempts to concentrate an institution’s focus on skin color, sex, and sexuality instead.

What is the similarity in all these traits DEI emphasizes? They have nothing to do with becoming the most competent doctor. 

“If a surgery clinic has a 3 percent mortality rate, I am closing the clinic,” said renowned cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Nche Zama, who graduated from Harvard Medical School and administered leading clinics such as the Cleveland Clinic and Lehigh Valley Hospital, in an interview with me. The top surgeons know that the difference between the highest-quality doctor and a lower-quality one is the difference between an award-winning clinic and one that faces the risk of closure. That’s why merit is so important in the profession.

At the point merit becomes offensive to surgery clinic administrators, that’s when we should stop being inclusive. We have to be intolerant of low-quality care. We must exclude those who can’t practice surgery at a high level. If we are inclusive of mediocrity in a profession upon which human lives depend, we’re going to see our essential health-care outlets stop functioning.

Fortunately, doctors like Zama are starting to speak out, and in February of 2023, UNC’s Board of Governors voted to ban the requirement of DEI statements in a medical faculty member’s evaluation, tenure, or promotion.

But these doctors must contend with race and gender-obsessed administrators like Greenberg and Pascarella, hospital authoritarians who are waging war on the whole concept of merit in surgery wholesale. And they are doing this in the name of DEI.

We can’t let this happen. Health care is the one profession in which nearly all Americans understand the critical importance of having the best-trained, most-qualified doctor. You cannot substitute merit with race, sex, or any other currently valued fad and expect to retain the same results. It is time doctors make a stand.

The dean of UNC’s medical school, Wesley Burks, has the power to renounce DEI as an ideology that focuses on qualities that have nothing to do with being the best-qualified doctor. He should expeditiously state that UNC Health Care’s sole focus is excellence. That would do a little to restore the trust that Americans are quickly losing in our woke, race- and sex-obsessed health-care system run by people like Greenberg and Pascarella.

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