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Protests Prompt Geisel to Continue Dual M.D.-PhD. Program

Hanover — The dean of Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine has pulled back on a decision to halt admissions to a dual-degree program following uproar among students, faculty and alumni.

Geisel Dean Wiley “Chip” Souba announced Thursday that the school would continue to recruit and admit students to its M.D.-Ph.D. program. The change-in-course comes after Souba told the school last week that admissions were being “paused” because of cost concerns while Geisel studied how it “fits into the school’s overall strategic goal of sustainability and excellence.”

Souba said he reconsidered his decision after meeting with students and faculty over the past two weeks. His announcement followed a Thursday morning meeting with the program’s director, Jim Gorham, and M.D.-Ph.D. students.

“This is good news for our students, the program and for Geisel,” Souba said in an e-mail Thursday to faculty and students. “This solution reflects input from our students and faculty, and focuses our constructive energy on the overarching goal of building a strong and sustainable medical school.”

Currently, there are 25 students enrolled in Geisel’s program. The school would admit two more students this year and two next year, Souba said. However, the school still is reviewing the program. A group of faculty and current M.D.-Ph.D. students will look at how Dartmouth’s peer institutions approach their programs, identify additional funding sources and come forward with recommendations that “can ensure a sustainable and excellent future for the program,” Souba said.

Such programs are designed for s tudents who want to become research physicians, and graduates often go on to become faculty members at medical schools, universities and research institutes.

Proponents of M.D.-Ph.D. programs say the students serve as bridges between clinicians and scientists and help bring the latest research out of the lab and into medical practice. But they can be expensive to run and some say that, while there are many long-term benefits, the short-term costs make them difficult to offer.

Dartmouth heavily subsidizes the students’ educational expenses, spending more than $1 million annually to cover tuition, fees and stipends for M.D.-Ph.D. students. Meanwhile, the medical school is trying to close a $13 million budget gap. Other medical schools, including the University of Vermont, have c urtailed M.D.-Ph.D. programs as federal funding dries up.

1,000 Signed Petition

But when Souba attempted to put a “pause” on admitting new students to the program, the decision outraged many at the college and even outside groups.

A petition calling for an immediate reversal of the decision began circulating and was signed by nearly 1,000 students, faculty and alumni, mostly from Geisel but some from other schools at Dartmouth. Students in the M.D.-Ph.D. program wrote President Philip Hanlon and Dartmouth trustees and called the decision “a betrayal of the educational mission of the school.” Program alumni also wrote a letter, a version of which was published Wednesday in the Valley News, saying that suspending admissions would do little to close the budget gap and would inflict damage on Geisel’s goal to become a top-20 medical school by the end of the decade.

At least one outside group, the National Association of M.D.-Ph.D. Programs, weighed in on the controversy.

In a Feb. 17 letter to Hanlon, Souba and Duane Compton, senior associate dean for research at Geisel, the group said, “suspending the M.D.-Ph.D. Program sends a message to current students ... that research is not important and implies that our current knowledge about disease and its treatment is adequate.” It went on to say that such programs benefit medical schools by bringing a “different vision of medicine” and said graduates, also called “physician scientists,” were important teachers for future physicians.

“Physician scientists are becoming an endangered species,” said Gorham, the program’s director, in an interview earlier this week. “There’s a need to keep programs like this going. We’re really training them to be leaders in the field of academic medicine.”

Geisel has graduated 43 M.D.-Ph.D. students since the program was established in 1993, Gorham said. He welcomed Souba’s decision to keep t he program open and, although it was still under review , he was optimistic that it would be made better.

“We look forward to that (review process),” he said Thursday. “I have nothing but optimism about that process.”

‘Worst Academic Decision’

Geisel professor Lee Witters was among the faculty who openly criticized Souba’s earlier decision to suspend admissions. In an interview on Tuesday, he said that it was “the single worst academic decision I’ve ever seen made.”

“The academic integrity of the institution is being compromised,” said Witters, who has taught medicine at Dartmouth for 30 years, and at Harvard before that.

Witters was more sanguine Thursday afternoon, though he was careful not to look too far ahead.

“It’s now an issue of what’s the future of the program,” he said, adding that he thought it should be expanded.

A joint statement from M.D.-Ph.D. students Andrew Giustini, Cynthia Hahn and Geoffrey Noble said they were “pleased with the many constructive conversations we have had with Dean Souba and the Geisel community” and hoped to find ways of making the program stronger.

“We look forward to continuing these partnerships with the Dean’s office, faculty and students as we examine strategies for strengthening the program in its role as an essential component of Geisel’s educational mission,” the statement said.

The conversations around Geisel the past two weeks demonstrated that there was strong support for the program, said Mark Israel, a Geisel professor and director of Norris Cotton Cancer Center, in an interview Thursday.

Israel said he had a particular interest in training the next generation of physician scientists.

“Cancer treatment currently is not as good as we believe it should be and the only way to change it is through continued research. And the only people that interact with the patients are physicians,” Israel said. “So if we don’t have physicians doing research, we’re mired in the current situation forever.”

He said Thursday’s announcement also showed that Souba was willing to listen to students.

“I think the commitment to educating the next generation of physician investigators is one clearly shared across the campus and working together offers an opportunity to do this in the most effective way going forward,” Israel said.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.