Film screening acknowledges dental school bias

By Mary Loftus | Emory Report | Oct. 15, 2012

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Emory President James Wagner offers a public apology to former dental school students at the screening of the documentary "From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History." Emory Photo/Video.

In an emotional gathering on the evening of Wednesday, Oct.10, former Emory dental students received a personal apology from President James Wagner for years of systematic discrimination against them and other Jewish students at Emory's now-defunct School of Dentistry between 1948 and 1961.

"As president of Emory University, I hereby express in the deepest, strongest terms Emory's regret for the anti-Semitic practices of the dental school during those years," Wagner said. "We at Emory also regret that it has taken this long for those events to be properly acknowledged. I am sorry; we are sorry."

A standing room only crowd of hundreds filled the ballroom at Cox Hall for a public screening of the documentary, "From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History," and a panel discussion afterward.

A more intimate, private event with Wagner for more than 30 former dental students, some of whom were represented or accompanied by family members, was held prior to the screening.

The film was based on research and interviews by Perry Brickman, who despite excelling at Emory College as an undergraduate biology major received a letter after his first year of Emory's dental school in 1952 informing him that he had "flunked out."

In the film, several former students spoke about the hurt and shock of receiving letters saying that their work was not up to par, they lacked the manual skills, or they "didn't have it in the hands"—and the shame they continued to feel decades later.

"Nobody believed us," Brickman said. "Our parents said, 'you must not have studied enough.' " Brickman, now 79, went on to graduate with honors from the University of Tennessee's dental school and enjoyed a long career as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Decatur.

Brickman was inspired to bring his and fellow students' experiences to light after seeing a 2006 MARBL exhibit showcasing "Jews at Emory" by Associate Professor Eric Goldstein that included a bar graph showing the exceptionally high rates of failure of Jewish students at Emory's dental school during the 1950s.

Research by the Anti-Defamation League showed that 65 percent of the Jewish students during the tenure of Dean John Buhler either flunked out or were forced to repeat coursework, but little attention had been paid to this fact and Emory had never publicly acknowledged the discrimination.

It was the first time Brickman had seen the figures. He interviewed dozens of former students with a flip cam and showed the footage to Emory Vice President Gary Hauk, who commissioned father-son documentary filmmakers David Hughes Duke and John Duke to complete the documentary.

"Not to have acknowledged this shameful chapter in our history would be to live a lie," Hauk said Wednesday night. Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt called the documentary "the height of honest inquiry," adding that it is rare to hear the stories behind the statistics in such an impactful way.

For his efforts in bringing this anti-Semitism to light, Brickman was made the 176th Emory "maker of history" in Emory's 176th year, building on the celebration of history makers from last year.

Emory's dental school, which began as the Southern Dental College in 1887 and became the Atlanta-Southern Dental College before becoming the Emory University School of Dentistry in 1944, was closed in the early 1990s due to increasing competition from state schools and lack of funding.

Wagner emphasized that the "regrettable" actions that took place there were the opposite of what Emory espouses to be—an ethically engaged university that celebrates its current broad diversity.

"I hope that you will not leave the campus this evening without knowing that the Emory community claims you as one of its own," he said. "And if you have been alienated from Emory, I hope that you will find it in your heart to claim this university once more as your own."

Several of the former dental students, voices breaking with emotion, rose to share their response to the film and to Wagner's apology for the university. "I respect you, for the first time in 50 years I can say that," said Eugene "Bucky" Bloom, a gastroenterologist from Savannah, who was flunked after two years and went on to the University of Miami medical school.

"My kids, it's hard for them to imagine that that really happened," said Dick Arnold, who had to repeat a year of coursework but graduated from Emory Dental School in 1958 and is still practicing in Coral Gables, Fla. "I do want to say, my hands had no trouble doing anything then, and they still don't."

Video of the Oct. 10 screening and the documentary, "From Silence to Recognition: Confronting Discrimination in Emory's Dental School History," is expected to be available soon on Emory's YouTube channel.