The former dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey's Camden campus fixed grades to allow students who could have been kicked out of medical school to eventually become doctors, a federal monitor said yesterday.
The monitor, former federal judge Herbert J. Stern, did not say what would have motivated Paul Mehne to pass unqualified students.
"There was no indication that there was any quid pro quo or that any of the students were even aware of what he was doing," said John Inglesino, an attorney at Stern's law firm. "Our job was to report the facts . . . whatever his motivation was."
UMDNJ hasn't taken any action against graduates who benefited from grade changes. But the monitor said one current student, whom Mehne allowed to progress through the program despite failing a required test, had been placed on "academic warning" for the rest of her medical education.
Mehne, who headed the UMDNJ/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School program at Cooper University Hospital, was placed on paid administrative leave on June 9, amid the monitor's investigation and just weeks before his planned retirement.
The program in Camden trains third- and fourth-year medical students as they transition from classroom to clinical training. Mehne is accused of passing some students who did not meet minimum standards and allowing them to retake tests in violation of school policy.
Mehne lives in Havertown and is former associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
In an interview with the monitor's staff, he denied instructing any faculty member to violate grading policy. But, the monitor said "documentary evidence confirms the allegations against Mehne."
"Any improprieties could undermine confidence in the medical profession and could cause untold damage to the lives of innocent individuals at the hands of undertrained or unprepared medical professionals," Stern said in the report.
The report said UMDNJ "has begun to remediate this problem."
"There can be no more fundamental breach of an educator's responsibilities than the violation of conventional standards of academic integrity," UMDNJ's president, William F. Owen Jr., wrote yesterday in an e-mail to his employees. "Therefore, I am sure you join with me in expressing outrage at the actions of Dr. Mehne."
No one answered the door yesterday afternoon at Mehne's home, and his attorney did not return a phone call.
When Mehne became associate dean in 1995, he had grades reported directly to his office. Prior to that, grades were reported to the assistant registrar, Stern said.
Mehne told the monitor that he did this because students were required to complete a course evaluation before the grades were entered.
"This explanation does not seem credible," the monitor wrote.
Failing UMDNJ students must appear before the Academic Standing Committee, and they must take remedial measures before they can continue their education.
During a six-year period reviewed by the monitor, 357 students appeared before the committee, but none from the Camden campus - a number Stern found "incomprehensible."
UMDNJ has 112 third- and fourth-year medical students in Camden and 222 in Piscataway, the school said.
In a four-year period, the monitor found 11 Camden students who failed exams and should have appeared before the committee, but did not.
Once the monitor began investigating, Mehne started reporting students to the committee for the first time in six years, Stern said.
Mehne often provided students' grades in a "piecemeal fashion," and one faculty member reported that he was forced to hold certain students' grades for a year or longer.
In what the monitor called the most "egregious example," Mehne ordered a faculty member to change a student's grade on two occasions. That faculty member later found that his signature had been forged on the student's final evaluation.
Grades are now reported to UMDNJ administrators in New Brunswick and new positions have been created to oversee the Camden campus, school spokeswoman Anna Farneski said.
She also noted that all medical students must pass a national licensing examination that assesses their general medical knowledge.
Inglesino also said that the monitor wasn't suggesting that Camden students "shouldn't be doctors or that they're bad doctors," only that the students were given unfair advantages.
The report also said Mehne was allowed to control school funds in a discretionary account, which he misused for student expenses. Mehne used that money to pay for student travel, books and alcohol at awards dinners, among other items, Stern reported.
Mehne was a popular dean during his tenure, and many current and former students came to his defense when he was suspended this summer.
According to a 2000 profile published in UMDNJ's magazine, Healthstate, the Kennett Square native helped develop a medical school at East Carolina University before returning to Penn. He joined UMDNJ in 1992.
Students and colleagues praised him as a model manager and a hands-on teacher who took his students on hiking trips and invited them to dinner with his family.
Mehne is the latest in a long line of UMDNJ administrators caught in the sights of the federal monitor's investigators. The university agreed to have Stern's team oversee the school in December 2005 as a way to avoid federal prosecution on Medicare and Medicaid fraud charges.
Stern has released reports criticizing high-ranking UMDNJ officials for abusing their expense accounts, doctoring financial records, steering contracts to friends, and executing questionable land deals. Several administrators have been ousted as a result.
Stern's work also laid the foundation for the federal investigation into State Sen. Wayne Bryant (D., Camden) and R. Michael Gallagher, the former dean of UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.
A federal grand jury indicted both of them in March for conspiring to get Bryant onto the school payroll in a no-work, pension-padding $35,000-a-year job. In turn, prosecutors said, Bryant used his influence as chair of the Senate budget committee to steer millions of dollars to the school.
Both have pleaded not guilty and remain free. Bryant is still serving in the Senate, though he is not running for reelection this year.
Stern noted this summer that UMDNJ - which has overhauled its leadership - has made "significant strides" in making recommended fixes, including hiring a compliance officer to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.
The school also hired a new general counsel in May, and Owens, the president, began work in July.
In his e-mail yesterday, Owens said there might be more embarrassing revelations in the future but that "it is most assuredly a sign that people are comfortable reporting improprieties and have the confidence that this university will aggressively correct them."