How one medical school became remarkably diverse

The diversity of medical school classes has barely budged in recent decades, even with the ability to consider an applicant’s race as one factor in admissions. Now, many medical school leaders fear a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision to restrict or ban race-conscious admissions policies could lead to precipitous declines, imperiling efforts to fight the nation’s stark racial and ethnic health disparities.

There’s good reason for concern: In the nine states where affirmative action is already banned at public universities, medical school classes are notably less diverse. But one school in California — the state with the country’s longest-standing ban on using race in admissions — has defied the odds. The University of California, Davis runs the country’s most diverse medical school after Howard, a historically Black university, and Florida International, a Hispanic-serving research university.

What Davis, and its remarkably diverse class of 2026 demonstrates, is an alternative future for a post-affirmative action world, one where diversity might be achieved despite the many obstacles that stand in the way. The student body has gone from predominantly white and male in the years before California adopted its affirmative action ban in 1996 to one in which nearly half the current class comes from Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations — people who have been historically underrepresented in medicine, and sometimes mistreated by its practitioners.

It hasn’t been easy. This demographic shift has required decades of hard work, millions in funding for scholarships and new programs, and deft political skill. It’s meant pushing back against alumni, donors, and faculty concerned about the school’s reputation, national rankings, and MCAT scores, metrics that can systematically exclude students of color and those with limited financial means.

Doing anything other than revolutionizing how medical students are chosen, said Mark Henderson, the outspoken internal medicine physician who revamped the admissions process at Davis’s medical school when he took over 16 years ago, means medical schools are failing to meet their basic mission of creating the physicians the nation desperately needs — and makes those schools complicit in the inequalities that run rife through the nation’s health care system.

“There will be ways to look like you are closing the gaps, but aren’t really,” said Henderson, who argues only a handful of medical schools are doing the work needed to diversify their classes and, through them, the nation’s health care workforce. “The fear I have

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