Medical School's Problems Were Worse Than Described

Some say that John Williams, the top official at GWU's medical school, has a potential conflict of interest.
Some say that John Williams, the top official at GWU's medical school, has a potential conflict of interest. (Handout - Handout)
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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

When the medical school at George Washington University was put on academic probation last fall, school officials said the reasons were mostly superficial matters, such as problems with administrative paperwork and student complaints about a shortage of lounge space.

In fact, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Washington Post, the school had deficiencies that were considerably more serious.

According to a confidential evaluation document and interviews, GWU has done an inadequate job of monitoring students' time with patients and ensuring that those clinical experiences relate to classroom learning. Student debt levels are among the highest in the country, according to the seven-page letter sent by the accrediting agency in June and later obtained by The Post. Students complained of mistreatment. Problems flagged as long ago as 2001 still had not been addressed when the school was put on probation.

The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences is the only one of 129 medical schools in the United States on academic probation. In the past 15 years, only five schools, including GWU's, have been singled out for problems that the country's medical school accrediting agency concluded "seriously compromised the quality of the medical education program."

Although it was not a factor in the decision to place GWU's medical school on probation, many people interviewed for this article also pointed to what they consider a potentially serious conflict of interest involving its top official. They said the conflict provided an incentive to keep the institution's focus on improving its hospital's bottom line rather than investing in medical education, research and training.

Since 1999, John F. Williams, GWU's provost and vice president for health affairs, also has received money and stock options for serving on the board of directors of Universal Health Services, which owns the university hospital.

Williams was paid nearly $680,000 in annual compensation by GWU, according to the university's 2006 tax returns, its most recent, and UHS reported in Securities and Exchange Commission filings that he received compensation from the company that calendar year of $122,000, including stock options.

Because he has a stake in the company's profitability, some at the school complained that Williams had no incentive to push for spending on new equipment and programs at the school. Others said it was not appropriate for Williams to be paid so well when the tax-exempt school is one of the most expensive in the country.

GWU leaders asked Williams to resign from the corporation board and this month accepted his resignation, effective by the end of the academic year. They said his position at both institutions could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"No information emerged to indicate an actual conflict of interest," the university said in a statement.

"It's surprising that this relationship went on for many years," Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has scrutinized salaries at nonprofit organizations like the medical school recently, said in a statement. Officials at nonprofit agencies are responsible for ensuring that their assets are used for the public good, while company leaders must maximize profit, he said. "It would be very hard for one person to wear both hats and fairly serve both interests."

Williams's supporters praise his skill as a doctor and his dedication to the program. "He's an alumnus of this medical school, and he's been supportive of me and this medical school and the students," said James L. Scott, the medical school dean. Williams declined to comment, as did GWU President Steven Knapp, who took office in August 2007.

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