Cheating on licensing exams is probed, and a highly competitive program is accused of giving preferential treatment in admissions.
By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 14, 2007
The UCLA School of Dentistry was hit by separate scandals Tuesday involving allegations of favoritism toward relatives of deep-pocket donors and student cheating on licensing examinations, university authorities acknowledged.
The American Dental Assn. is investigating allegations of cheating by at least a dozen UCLA students as well as students from USC, Loma Linda University and New York University, UCLA officials said. The students were alleged to have improperly obtained questions to a test that is a step toward fulfilling qualifications for a license to practice dentistry.
"The ADA is looking into alleged improprieties by UCLA students associated with testing," said Lawrence Lokman, UCLA's assistant vice chancellor of communications. "We would certainly hope any ADA investigation provides adequate due process to the students, and whatever matter they are looking at would be resolved quickly and fairly."
A detailed account of alleged preferential treatment given large financial donors to the dental school's highly competitive orthodontics residency program appeared in Tuesday's edition of the Daily Bruin, the campus newspaper. There are about only six positions offered each year in the residency program, and the positions are highly sought because careers as orthodontic specialists can be lucrative.
It was not the first time the university has been accused of favoring major donors and other influential people with VIP admission treatment. In 1996, The Times published a five-part series that underlined how seeking generous donors had become a "team sport," in the words of one UCLA fundraiser.
In the aftermath of The Times series, UCLA officially prohibited influencing admissions with donations.
The Daily Bruin's months-long investigation, coupled with an independent audit conducted this year, has prompted changes in the School of Dentistry's admissions policies and procedures, university authorities said. For example, admission to coveted program positions must now be reviewed by a special admissions panel to resolve potential conflicts of interest.
But No-Hee Park, dean of the School of Dentistry, said in a prepared statement that the program was fair and merit-based.
"While an independent investigation requested by Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams found no credible and convincing evidence to support allegations of a legacy program in the orthodontics admissions process," Park said, "it did provide us with an opportunity to review our admissions policies and procedures and make improvements in the areas of oversight and transparency."
(Abrams was acting chancellor until Gene D. Block assumed the top post at UCLA this summer.)
The Daily Bruin article, which it said was based on examinations of hundreds of pages of e-mails and internal documents, said the program's high admissions standards were relaxed for children or relatives of donors who pledged hefty financial gifts, one as high as $1 million.
Amid a university probe, John Beumer III in February resigned as chairman of the faculty executive committee of the School of Dentistry.
"The selection process for residents in orthodontics amounts to nothing less than an affirmative action program for the wealthy and well-connected," he wrote in a resignation letter posted Tuesday on the Daily Bruin's website. "Preferential treatment has been given to children of donors and students who have worked in the research laboratories of orthodontics faculty."
In an interview Tuesday, he said, "UCLA students in particular have been disadvantaged by this policy. I don't think this represents the best of the university. But I think it will change because, fortunately, this incident has precipitated a review of the issue."
Michael McDonald, a dental school alumnus, agreed, saying in an interview, "It's horrible, just horrible, what's going on."
According to McDonald, a dental school official told him that giving large donors and their relatives an edge in the competitive admissions process was a way to increase revenues.
"When I heard that, I called the office of admissions about it," McDonald recalled, "and the rats started jumping off the ship.
"People should be getting in because of their hard work and qualifications, not because of how much money their mom and dad gave the school," McDonald said. "I studied my brains out, but I would have accomplished nothing under these circumstances because my father worked in a grocery store and our family bank account was empty."
As for the investigation by the American Dental Assn., Lokman declined to elaborate.
However, two members of the School of Dentistry who asked that their names not be used out of fear of retribution, said the alleged cheating involved the sharing of compact discs that contained improperly obtained questions that appear in American Dental Assn.'s National Board Dental Examinations.
"I love UCLA, and I've donated a lot of money to the university," McDonald said. "But I'm distraught. The fact we have some bad apples in the dental school really bothers me."