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University Of Pittsburgh Shifts Blame After Canceling Med School Professor For Criticizing DEI

Wang says agents of the university violated his free speech rights and retaliated against him for reporting on the unlawful use of race in graduate programs.


In August 2020, the world of MedTwitter was ablaze with stories about Dr. Norman Wang, a medical school professor who was abruptly “canceled” after he published a scholarly article critically examining the history of affirmative action in medical schools and graduate medical education.

He was removed from his fellowship director position and forbidden from having contact with medical students, residents, or fellows, but that was just the beginning. After a lengthy discovery, the full picture of what was done to Wang has finally come to light.

Almost as shocking as the school’s conduct is its attempt to evade First Amendment liability through an elaborate shell game in which it passed the blame onto a partner institution it claims is not a state actor. As is clear from recent filings, the University of Pittsburgh was responsible for what took place.

Punished for Opposition to Race Discrimination

Wang has been dually employed by the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) School of Medicine and by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) since 2008. Historically connected, Pitt and UPMC are closely tied by a set of relationship agreements. Pitt appoints one-third of UPMC’s board of directors, and UPMC provides financial support to the School of Medicine. Pitt and UPMC together constitute an academic medical center; Pitt oversees all academic activity, while UPMC oversees all clinical activity.

Wang, a cardiologist, sees patients at UPMC hospitals and publishes academic research. Until August 2020, he also taught medical students, residents, and fellows, and was the director of a fellowship program in cardiac electrophysiology.

In 2019, Dr. Wang became concerned about new so-called diversity and inclusion initiatives that were affecting cardiology. Among these was a new diversity metric that the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) had introduced in 2019 to evaluate graduate medical education programs. In his experience, such programs encouraged illegal racial preferences and produced very few positive effects, even for the people they are designed to help.

With these concerns in mind, Dr. Wang wrote an academic article on diversity and the cardiology workforce, tracing the history of race and ethnic preferences in medical education. It raised questions about the legality, effectiveness, and wisdom of such programs. The piece argued from available data that the medical profession had failed to reach its goals of increasing the percentages of underrepresented races and ethnicities in the field.

Wang submitted his article to the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA). After a rigorous peer-review process, JAHA agreed to publish Wang’s article on March 14, 2020, as a 17-page “white paper” titled, “Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity: Evolution of Race and Ethnicity Considerations for the Cardiology Workforce in the United States of America From 1969 to 2019.”

Coordinated Response

The article remained largely dormant until the end of July 2020, when a Pitt trustee (and a UPMC board member), Dr. Vaughn Clagette, learned of it and demanded action be taken against Dr. Wang. The complaint quickly reached Wang’s superiors at Pitt: Dr. Samir Saba, the chief of the Division of Cardiology; Dr. Mark Gladwin, the chair of the Department of Medicine; and Dr. Anantha Shekhar, the dean of the School of Medicine.

What followed was a coordinated effort by officials at Pitt and UPMC to suppress Wang’s public criticism of racial preferences.

On July 31, 2020, Wang was summoned to a meeting with Drs. Saba and Kathryn Berlacher, both dually employed by Pitt and UPMC, to confront him about his piece. Saba criticized the article, falsely claiming it ascribed certain traits or characteristics to certain groups. Berlacher, for her part, called Wang a racist.

Saba said, “You know what we are trying to do here, Norm.”

After some discussion, Wang said, “I just wanted us to follow the law.”

Saba responded by saying that “laws can change.” And Dr. Wang was told he could no longer be program director.

Following the meeting, Berlacher and her colleagues began posting negative comments about Wang on Twitter. On Aug. 2, 2020, Berlacher posted, “@PittCardiology I’m looking at you. What do we stand for? What do you think of this OPINION piece that misinterprets data and misquotes people? @JAHA_AHA this is scientifically invalid and racist.”

She then replied using the Pitt Cardiology Twitter account: “@PittCardiology stands for diversity equity and inclusion across the board. This article uses misquotes, false interpretations and racist thinking to defend a single person’s conclusion. We are outraged that @JAHA_AHA published this shameful and infuriating piece.”

On Aug. 4, Saba and Berlacher notified Wang that he could no longer have any role in medical education and could have no contact with medical students, residents, or fellows. He was reassigned to rotations in outlying hospitals where such trainees would not be present.

The next day, several faculty members, including Saba, Berlacher, and Shekhar, sent an email to JAHA, claiming Wang’s article contained “blatant scientific falsehoods and misquotes,” and requested that it be withdrawn. Their assertion was false, but it succeeded. JAHA retracted Wang’s article the next day without allowing him any input and even published its own abject apology.

Although efforts were made over the next several months to defend Wang’s academic freedom, including by Pitt’s Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee and by the federal Department of Education, these efforts met with little success.

Dr. Wang filed suit in December 2020, represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm where I am deputy general counsel.

Will the Courts Uphold the Law?

The current iteration of Wang’s complaint asserts that agents of the university violated his right to free speech and retaliated against him for reporting on the unlawful use of race in graduate medical education programs jointly run by UPMC and Pitt.

The university has used its relationship with UPMC to try to shield itself from liability under the First Amendment, claiming that Wang’s professional discipline came from the private UPMC and not the state-run university.

This after-the-fact excuse has no weight. At no point in Wang’s ordeal did his supervisors claim they were acting in their capacity as UPMC officials only. Indeed, they could not. Dean Shekhar, the dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine who played an instrumental role in the whole affair, had no authority over the UPMC. Moreover, if followed to its logical end, that argument would grant the university extraordinary power to crack down on academic freedom.

The evidence uncovered in discovery and filed with the court in connection with the parties’ motions for summary judgment strongly suggests the court should resolve all of these issues in favor of Wang. He was punished for his published academic writing and speech opposing discrimination by Pitt officials who never distinguished between their Pitt and UPMC roles.

Imagine if a government agency could get away with violating your constitutional rights simply by denying it was acting as the government. It seems absurd, but that is what Pitt has attempted to avoid liability after it sanctioned a professor for criticizing racial preferences in an article in a prestigious academic journal.

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