By Sarina Deb
Jorge Caballero ’05 M.D. ’10, a Mexican-American physician and data scientist, is speaking out about his decision to leave Stanford Medicine, citing a culture in which he says he was penalized for advocating for BIPOC trainees and speaking up about a selection formula for recruiting applicants that he believed discriminated against minority faculty and students.
“I could no longer see myself at an institution that ignored my decades of experience in multiple high-value, high-impact fields,” Caballero tweeted last Wednesday.
Though Caballero did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, some Stanford Medicine affiliates told The Daily that they stand in solidarity with Caballero, arguing that Stanford is making significant efforts to foster diversity, equity and inclusion but still has a long way to go.
In a statement to The Daily, Stanford Medicine spokesperson Julie Greicius wrote that “Stanford Medicine does not comment on individual personnel matters.” However, she said, “We are committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion as an integral part of our work in medical research, education and patient care, and have made meaningful progress in recent years.”
Caballero took to Twitter to announce his decision to resign from Stanford Medicine and join a digital health startup, inspired by 1619 Project founder and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Hannah-Jones turned down an offer to be a tenured journalism professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill to serve as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. Her announcement came after she was initially denied tenure at UNC amid controversy surrounding the 1619 Project and its focus on the legacy of slavery in the United States.
Caballero is an anesthesiologist who attended Stanford for both his bachelor’s and medical degrees. He served as the chief resident of the anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine program at Stanford Hospital from 2013 to 2014, and in 2020, he went on to work alongside a team of volunteers who earned national recognition for sourcing data to support the government-led response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, he has served as a clinical instructor in the department of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine.
Caballero’s research and advocacy focus on exposing socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to COVID-19 testing in California. He also designed the first analysis that demonstrated that Black and Hispanic communities had limited access to COVID-19 testing in the United States in comparison to predominantly white communities.
Caballero said that his dissatisfaction with Stanford stemmed from watching as employees with less experience — many of whom he trained — got promoted to “newly created tenure tracks,” while he remained in the same position.
According to Caballero, 2014 marked the “beginning of the end” after he advocated for a BIPOC medical student whom he sought to train in his department. When Caballero recognized that this person would not be guaranteed a match based on the formula the chair of the department developed for selecting candidates, he spoke out against the formula, citing discrimination based on race and ethnicity.
The program director stepped in at this point, leading the trainee to match with Caballero’s department, Caballero wrote. He noted in his Twitter thread that this trainee is now a rising star at the university level.
From that point forward, Caballero said on Twitter, he was on his own. According to Caballero, this included minimal support from the University in writing a grant proposal.
“I received the bare minimum in terms of guidance and documentation in support of a training grant that would essentially pay the University to allow me to continue the work I was already doing,” Caballero wrote. “I wasn’t being supported, and it showed: my grant application was rejected.”
However, Caballero added, he was lucky to receive the support of mentors from other departments, who rallied to help him. After securing stop-gap funding under a school-wide grant, he accepted a spot at Stanford.
“I knew they had expended political capital to help me, but even then, I knew that nothing had fundamentally changed,” Caballero wrote.
Caballero’s resignation is not the first time Stanford Medicine has been accused of inequitable conduct. Last summer, affiliates spoke out about the lack of diversity in the field of medicine and the burden of the “minority tax.” Physicians also opened up about experiencing racism and discrimination from patients.
Greicius wrote that “there is still much work to be done” and added that Stanford Medicine has initiatives underway in this area, such as the creation of the Stanford Medicine Commission on Justice and Equity in June 2020. According to Greicius, the Commission, which she called “an institution-wide, collaborative effort to dismantle systemic racism and discrimination within our own community and beyond,” has led new initiatives and delivered a report in May 2021 with concrete recommendations that Stanford Medicine will adopt in months ahead.
“We recognize this work takes time and engagement at every level of our organization, and we are proceeding with humility, determination, and the highest expectations for transforming our culture,” Greicius wrote.
Assistant dean for diversity in medical school education Felipe Perez added that Caballero’s story serves as a learning opportunity for Stanford Medicine to “effect meaningful change.”
“We remain committed to creating an environment within Stanford Medicine where underrepresented trainees, staff, and faculty experience dignity, respect, and recognition of their full humanity,” Perez said. “There is much work to do; we ourselves and our leaders want very much and expect to be held accountable.”
Professor of radiation oncology and associate dean of Stanford School of Medicine admissions Iris Gibbs said that Stanford Medicine is making “earnest efforts to identify and dismantle” racism, but still has “a long way to go.”
“Stanford Medicine is doing a lot and is actually very sincere in what they are doing, but unfortunately in this case, it may have just been too little too late for Dr. Caballero,” Gibbs said. “We have to be wary of the minority tax, in which we rely on members of minority communities to be the ones to help fix all of our problems, yet don’t recognize their contributions to enhance the learning environment based on DEI work and don’t promote them.”
Gender equity expert and School of Medicine scholar in residence Arghavan Salles M.D. ’06 Ph.D. ’14 stressed that Caballero’s experience is not unique to Stanford.
“What his story illustrates, as does that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, is that the work that is valued depends on the identity of the person doing the work,” Salles said. “This is the same phenomenon that occurs with performance evaluations and grant reviews — the work of women and under-represented minorities is seen as less important. This has immense consequences for promotion and retention and contributes to the inequities we see, particularly at the level of leadership.”
“Dr. Caballero’s experiences highlight how important it is for us all to work on changing the culture in medicine and in academics more broadly so that talented people can thrive within the system rather than feeling they have to leave in order to feel valued,” Salles added.