David Miller entered the University of Illinois at Chicago's dental school in 1984 with some trepidation. "First off, it was a very competitive environment," he says. "There weren't many African-Americans around. There were two of us in my class.
"My first year in dental school someone called me a nigger, and there was a scuffle," says Miller, who's now the executive director of the Lincoln Dental Society, the Illinois association of black dentists. "Word of it traveled through the school. Phil counseled me afterwards."
"Phil" is James P. Roberts, an assistant dean at the dental college and a coordinator of UIC's Urban Health Program, a state-mandated initiative meant to attract and support blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians in the university's graduate health programs. A mentor to a generation of minorities attending UIC's dental and medical schools, Roberts was recently sacked, and his partisans charge that he was fired for raising legitimate concerns about the Urban Health Program's budget.
After becoming assistant dean in 1977, Roberts spent much of his time drawing minorities into the dental school and helping them succeed once they were there. He was assisted in his efforts by Oscar Martinez, associate director of the Urban Health Program. "There was never money for travel, so we relied a great deal on phone contacts to get to kids," says Roberts. "We'd talk to them and have them visit the dental campus."
Once his recruits were admitted, Roberts served as their advocate. "When problems developed with housing or financial aid, I stepped in," he says. "This one time six or seven blacks came down to my office, enraged that this professor had seated them all together in the front of the class. So off I went to have some words with the instructor." Roberts put failing students in touch with tutors and lent a sympathetic ear to those who needed to talk. "If you were in the cafeteria or the bookstore, he'd see you and say, 'Hey, how's it going?'" says Linda Murray, a medical school alum who's now director of the Winfield Moody Health Center in Cabrini-Green. Sometimes he played a more significant role: Pablo Torres, a local dentist, says Roberts helped him secure a residency in New York.
Roberts also became a vociferous political force on campus. In 1989 he openly opposed efforts by UIC Hospital to gift its buildings on the near west side to Cook County when the university's medical center planned to merge with Michael Reese, a move that was killed after the state legislature failed to approve the deal. Several years ago Roberts began to question how the UIC administration was spending money allotted to the Urban Health Program, out of which his own salary was paid. His forum was the UHP community advisory committee, whose biannual meetings he attended as a staff member and where matters came to a head at its January 1995 session.
When UIC provost David Broski rose to present a report on the UHP budget, he was confronted by Roberts, Linda Murray, and others. "That budget was embarrassing," says Regnal Jones, a member of the advisory committee and the director of the Chicago Area Health and Medical Careers Program, a consortium of seven area medical schools and three dental schools aiding prospective minority doctors and dentists. "There appeared to be tremendous gaps in the numbers. They couldn't tell me, to my satisfaction, how they spent eight to ten million dollars over a period from about 1986 to 1992." Jones joined Roberts and Murray in asking for a full accounting of how state money earmarked for the UHP had been spent, and the advisory panel formed a subcommittee to nail down the figures.
The resulting study, released last June, put forth more detailed numbers. The report claimed that since 1978, when the UHP was launched, the program had consumed some $16 million in pursuit of its mission, and in 1995 alone the UHP spent $1.7 million to attract and keep nonwhite students (excluding Asians) in UIC's medical, dental, nursing, pharmacy, and other health schools.
But Roberts says the accounting was too vague. He privately suspected that money had been diverted to plug deficits in places like the dental school or to help finance construction of the school's new $60 million molecular-biology research building. At the June meeting of the UHP advisory committee, Roberts questioned the accuracy of the study's figures, and Broski lashed out. "'I resent what you're saying,'" Roberts says Broski told him. "'You're making very serious allegations.'" But Roberts wasn't the only one voicing objections. In the end Broski agreed to authorize yet another audit, this time by an outside firm. Soon he also moved to restructure the advisory committee, suspending its meetings until a new format had been worked out.
The dispute over the UHP would have likely remained an internal matter if the university hadn't fired the mouthy Roberts. Last July Allen Anderson, dean of the dental school, presented Roberts with a letter informing him that he would soon receive a "terminal contract," limiting his employment to one more year. The letter didn't catch Roberts entirely by surprise, since his relations with Anderson had soured after he'd opposed the Michael Reese merger. "The dean and I hadn't been lunching together or having tea and crumpets," says Roberts. "Though when I went to meetings I always acted professionally."
Now Roberts's supporters are crying foul. "What Phil's saying about the Urban Health Program may be right or wrong," says Regnal Jones, "but that's not the real issue. At UIC they've been trying to get rid of this man for years because he makes too much noise, and now they've done it."
Anderson says he let Roberts go because for two years prior to his firing he had recruited no African-Americans into the dental school. Roberts agrees that none were admitted, but he argues that he was hobbled by circumstances. "There was no extra money to do recruiting," he complains. "Besides, I don't personally admit people to the college, the admissions committee does, so it's wrong to lay all the blame at my door."
His friends defend Roberts on other grounds. David Miller says bigger state dental schools such as Michigan and Iowa have lately proven more attractive to blacks than UIC. Jones adds that, in general, sharper African-American candidates have been forsaking dentistry for other opportunities in medicine and law.
"Well, if that were so, you'd assume the black and minority enrollment would be down for other health schools, like pharmacy and nursing," counters UIC spokesman John Camper. "But we see them being competitive." Camper's only partly correct. Overall, the nursing school is 19 percent black, Hispanic, or Native American, whereas the pharmacy school has a minority population of 7 percent, near the dental school's record of 6 percent. The medical school is 20 percent nonwhite, not counting Asians.
As for Roberts's contention that he needed an expense account to do his job adequately, Camper says, "To recruit minorities when you're located right in the middle of the city of Chicago doesn't require an enormous expense." Anderson claims Roberts was accorded a modicum of travel money, though Roberts denies that.
In the letter of dismissal, Anderson also said he wanted to replace Roberts, who has only a bachelor's degree in education, with a health professional. And now the dean has done that--appointing Michael Dunlop, an African-American dentist and UIC graduate.
Roberts hasn't taken any of this quietly. In August, after he received his terminal contract, he filed an academic grievance citing unfair treatment by Broski, Anderson, and another dental school official, but the appeal was denied on December 1. Meanwhile, Roberts has brought suit in Cook County Circuit Court, charging the grievance procedure had violated his constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law, an action that's still pending. In a federal suit, filed on March 26, Roberts seeks $5 million, alleging that Broski dumped him "in retaliation for [his] whistle-blowing activities."
Camper scoffs at Roberts being a whistle-blower. "He hasn't shown what bad deeds he's blowing a whistle over," Camper says, pointing out that a UHP audit is being prepared by Ragland & Associates, a black-owned accounting firm in South Holland. Roberts and Jones complain that the scope of the audit is too limited.
Anderson says his college's UHP funding, largely Roberts's $54,000 salary and that of Oscar Martinez, has been fully answered for. Camper says no UHP money has been applied to the new research building or to cover a shortfall in the dentistry college (basically a $3 million hole carried year to year caused by the state's failure to adequately reimburse UIC for Medicaid patients).
"Roberts's speaking out has been irritating, yes, but that's not why he was canned," says Camper. David Broski, the new UIC chancellor and the person most visibly irked by Roberts, declined to comment on the situation, citing his defendant status in the assistant dean's lawsuits.
The UHP advisory committee hasn't met in nearly a year. Roberts, who was locked out of his dental school office in February, is at home in Evanston, continuing to draw his salary--but only through August.
Other ramifications may linger. "The university's attitude toward Phil--that you can't challenge your bosses in public--has had a chilling effect on faculty and staff at UIC," says Linda Murray. "Everyone should be able to voice their opinions. That's the only way you can have an open program. The message in this is that if you speak up you'll get cut off at the knees."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.