University of Pittsburgh Faces Lawsuit Over Alleged Suppression of Academic Freedom


In August 2020, the world of MedTwitter was filled with discussions about Dr. Norman Wang, a medical school professor who faced abrupt cancellation after publishing a scholarly article critically analyzing the history of affirmative action in medical schools and graduate medical education.

He was removed from his fellowship director position and barred from contact with medical students, residents, or fellows, marking only the beginning of his ordeal. Following extensive discovery, the complete picture of what transpired with Dr. Wang has emerged.

Nearly as shocking as the school’s actions is its attempt to sidestep First Amendment liability via an intricate strategy where it blamed a partner institution claimed not to be a state actor. Recent filings reveal that the University of Pittsburgh was responsible for the incidents.

Punished for Opposition to Race Discrimination

Since 2008, Wang has held dual employment with the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) School of Medicine and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Historically intertwined, Pitt and UPMC are linked by various agreements: Pitt appoints one-third of UPMC’s board of directors, and UPMC financially supports the School of Medicine. Together, they form an academic medical center, with Pitt overseeing academic activities and UPMC overseeing clinical activities.

Wang, a cardiologist, treats patients at UPMC hospitals and conducts academic research. Until August 2020, he also taught medical students, residents, and fellows, and directed a fellowship program in cardiac electrophysiology.

In 2019, Dr. Wang became uneasy about new diversity and inclusion initiatives impacting cardiology. One notable policy was a diversity metric introduced in 2019 by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) to evaluate graduate medical programs. From his perspective, these initiatives promoted illegal racial preferences and achieved minimal positive outcomes, even for intended beneficiaries.

With these concerns, Dr. Wang authored an academic article on diversity within the cardiology workforce, charting the history of racial and ethnic preferences in medical education. He questioned the legality, efficacy, and practicality of such programs, arguing with available data that the medical profession had not met its goals to increase the representation of underrepresented races and ethnicities.

Wang submitted his article to the Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA). After a rigorous peer review, JAHA published Wang’s article on March 14, 2020, as a 17-page white paper titled, “Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity: Evolution of Race and Ethnicity Considerations for the Cardiology Workforce in the United States of America From 1969 to 2019.”

Coordinated Response

The article attracted little attention until late July 2020, when Pitt trustee and UPMC board member Dr. Vaughn Clagette learned of it and demanded action against Dr. Wang. The complaint quickly escalated to Wang’s superiors at Pitt: Dr. Samir Saba, chief of the Division of Cardiology; Dr. Mark Gladwin, chair of the Department of Medicine; and Dr. Anantha Shekhar, dean of the School of Medicine.

What ensued was a coordinated effort by Pitt and UPMC officials to quash Wang’s public criticism of racial preferences.

On July 31, 2020, Wang was called to a meeting with Drs. Saba and Kathryn Berlacher, both dually employed by Pitt and UPMC, to discuss his article. Saba criticized the article, falsely alleging it ascribed traits or characteristics to certain groups. Berlacher labeled Wang a racist.

Saba remarked, “You know what we are trying to do here, Norm.”

In response to Wang’s statement, “I just wanted us to follow the law,” Saba asserted, “laws can change.” Wang was then informed he could no longer serve as program director.

Following the meeting, Berlacher and colleagues began posting negative comments about Wang on Twitter. On Aug. 2, 2020, Berlacher tweeted, “@PittCardiology I’m looking at you. What do we stand for? What do you think of this OPINION piece that misinterprets data and misquotes people? @JAHA_AHA this is scientifically invalid and racist.”

She followed up using the Pitt Cardiology Twitter account: “@PittCardiology stands for diversity, equity, and inclusion across the board. This article uses misquotes, false interpretations, and racist thinking to defend a single person’s conclusion. We are outraged that @JAHA_AHA published this shameful and infuriating piece.”

On Aug. 4, Saba and Berlacher notified Wang that he could no longer partake in medical education or interact with medical students, residents, or fellows. He was reassigned to rotations in outlying hospitals devoid of such trainees.

The next day, several faculty members, including Saba, Berlacher, and Shekhar, emailed JAHA, falsely claiming Wang’s article contained “blatant scientific falsehoods and misquotes” and demanding its retraction. Their false claims succeeded; JAHA retracted Wang’s paper the following day, offering no input from him and even issuing an apology.

Efforts to defend Wang’s academic freedom over the subsequent months, including support from Pitt’s Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee and the federal Department of Education, achieved little success.

In December 2020, Dr. Wang filed a lawsuit represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a nonprofit public interest law firm where I serve as deputy general counsel.

Will the Courts Uphold the Law?

The latest version of Wang’s complaint alleges that university agents violated his free speech rights and retaliated against him for reporting the unlawful use of race in joint UPMC and Pitt graduate medical education programs.

The university has used its relationship with UPMC to attempt to shield itself from First Amendment liability, claiming Wang’s professional discipline originated from the private UPMC, not the state-run university.

This post-facto justification holds no merit. At no point during Wang’s ordeal did his supervisors assert they were acting solely in their UPMC capacities. Indeed, they could not—Dean Shekhar, who played a crucial role, had no authority over UPMC. Extending this argument would give the university immense power to suppress academic freedom.

The evidence uncovered in discovery and filed with the court in connection with summary judgment motions strongly indicates the court should favor Wang. He was penalized for his academic writing and speech opposing discrimination by Pitt officials who never differentiated their Pitt and UPMC roles.

Imagine if a government agency could escape accountability for violating constitutional rights by merely denying government actions. It seems absurd, but that’s precisely what Pitt has attempted to dodge liability for sanctioning a professor who criticized racial preferences in a prestigious academic journal article.

Robert Renner
Robert Renner
J. Robert Renner is the deputy general counsel of the Center for Individual Rights.

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