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The Master of Science in Health Policy Research program is based in the Perelman School of Medicine.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Students have expressed concern over allegations of discrimination within a master's program at the Perelman School of Medicine after the discovery of emails from administrators discussing underrepresented minority students.

The concerns with the school's Master of Science in Health Policy Research program were prompted by a Dec. 1, 2023 email from MSHP Co-Director Peter Groeneveld — which suggested that underrepresented minority, or URM, students in the program have struggled and dropped out. Penn Medicine launched an investigation into the concerns after a student complaint was filed in January — but “did not identify a pattern of unacceptable behavior,” according to a Penn Med spokesperson.

The investigation, which kept Groeneveld in his position while announcing several action steps, concluded in February. But multiple students in the MSHP program familiar with the matter — who were granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation — criticized the process in interviews with The Daily Pennsylvanian and detailed their concerns with MSHP administration.

MSHP is a two year degree program dedicated to training researchers to leverage their knowledge of medical practice to improve the nation’s health system. The program has various attending physicians, nurses, and medical students in its 2023-25 cohort — a number of whom identify as URMs, according to multiple sources.

Groeneveld’s comments were sent to Co-Director Judy Shea as part of an internal email discussing the agenda for the program’s executive committee meeting on Dec. 6, 2023. 

In the email, which was obtained by the DP, Groeneveld wrote that — while there have been some “superstar” underrepresented minority students in the MSHP program — many URM students are at “high risk for struggling with the program and ultimately not finishing.” The email listed by name three of the “superstar” students.

“I wonder if some URM applicants are being pushed toward us by external forces (e.g. fellow director expectations) and not by intrinsic interests,” Groeneveld wrote.

Groeneveld and Shea did not respond to requests for comment.

After viewing Groeneveld’s comments, all students in the MSHP program released a statement in early January arguing that the “toxic and biased categorizations and assumptions” of the email highlighted the unrealistic expectations and burden of excellence placed on URMs. 

The students contended that — rather than labeling students as underachieving — the program ought to examine the “institutional and interpersonal racism inherent within academia and the MSHP program” that prevent students from succeeding. The statement also called for Groeneveld to be suspended from his advising and administrative position.

“Our goal is to achieve justice,” one student in the program told the DP. “And, because this happened, because there’s clear evidence in our minds that bias and racism was enacted, we do not think he is fit to be in a leadership role.”

The statement also said that perspectives like those shared by Groeneveld could harm the future recruitment of underrepresented minority students to the program — with them writing that his comment “highlights a lack of empathy and critical understanding of URM student experiences.”

In response to this statement, Penn Med launched an investigation, which was helmed by Penn Med Senior Vice Dean for Clinical and Translational Research Emma Meagher, according to multiple students.

On Feb. 21, Meagher emailed the results of the investigation to MSHP students. While Meagher acknowledged Groeneveld’s comments as “alarming and understandably distressing,” she wrote that the email was “focused on potential interventions to ensure all students are successful” — saying that Groeneveld would continue in his role.

Meagher also announced that the MSHP program would introduce two new administrative positions — an associate director for student affairs and an associate director for diversity and inclusion — to serve as student advocates for the MSHP student experience. She also said that student representation would be added to the MSHP executive committee.

The evaluation — which spanned three weeks — met with students, MSHP mentors and staff, National Clinical Scholars Program leadership, and other faculty associated with the MSHP program, according to the email.

Multiple students who spoke with the DP expressed frustration with the investigation’s process and results. They contended that several scheduled town hall meetings for students to gain updates on the evaluation and to air grievances were abruptly canceled or held without advanced notice or remote options.

The students contended that — at one town hall meeting moderated by Meagher — she was “defensive,” deflected students’ questions, and interrupted students who raised their concerns. They also argued that Meagher focused more on the email’s intent and the reputational damage to Groeneveld rather than the impact on the wellbeing of URM students — which many students found upsetting.

When the DP contacted Meagher for comment, a Penn Med spokesperson responded by stating that “Penn Medicine is deeply committed to ensuring a diverse, anti-racist culture across all our workplaces and learning environments.”

While the statement acknowledged the “considerable pain” experienced by students due to the language in Groeneveld’s email, the email said that the investigation “did not identify a pattern of unacceptable behavior.”

“We are committed to continuous improvement, and efforts are now underway to strengthen support and inclusivity in the program,” the spokesperson said.

Multiple students also contended that — while the tangible evidence of harmful comments like Groeneveld’s is new — similar comments have been said in the past.

“This is just the first time we have hardcore proof,” a MSHP student said.

Editor's note: On March 15, Perelman School of Medicine leaders announced in a message to the school community that Judy Shea had died.