Cornell Orientation Includes a Play on Race and Ethics
CORNELL UNIVERSITY in Ithaca, N.Y., is tailoring its freshman orientation this fall to offer more than just a cheery "welcome to campus."All 3,000 incoming freshman are being encouraged to attend a theater production of "Miss Evers' Boys." The play is based on an actual 40-year United States government study of 400 African-American men misled to believe they were receiving treatment for syphilis, when in fact they were being studied until the end of their lives. David Feldshuh, a Cornell professor of theater arts and a physician, wrote the play, which won the Geraldine Dodge Foundation's New American Play Award in 1989, and is being performed on campus by the Illusion Theatre of Minneapolis. Group discussions focusing on racism and ethics will be held with senior faculty members after each of the 11 performances Aug. 21 through 31. "We want students to come to Cornell and realize it's a learning experience for them, not just to teach them formally but engage their minds and their hearts," says Larry Palmer, vice-president for academic programs and campus affairs at Cornell. The play addresses such current issues as racism, professional ethics, and the utility and purposes of science and research. "Some leading institutions have had some ugly situations," Palmer points out, referring to racial incidents on US campuses. He says he hopes the event will serve as a precedent for future orientations at Cornell and other universities. "In this country we really put a lot of different people together in our institutions. We're saying: Now that we have all these folks together, let's try to make it a rich experience." David Feldshuh, the playwright, calls the event "a unique and daring exercise" that "will serve as an excellent launching pad into a new academic environment." "I also believe that very few young people will have heard of this study," continued Dr. Feldshuh, reached by phone. "Yet the issues involved are contemporary and will probably concern these students as they get older." Issues of human experimentation, medical ethics, informed consent, and patient communication are only going to get more complex as we move into the next century, he says. "The discussion goes beyond blaming and asks: 'How did this happen?' and 'Could this be happening in some other context today? the playwright says. He considers the play "a cautionary tale." IN 1932 a private foundation began a project to diagnose and treat syphilis, Feldshuh explains. The group ran out of money and the public health service took it over. Officials found they couldn't afford to treat the men, but decided to watch them for a brief time until money was available. The observation went on for 40 years. Penicillin became the standard medical treatment for syphilis in the 1940s, yet the men in the Tuskegee, Ala., experiment were not treated. Objections were raised in the late 1960s, but the study was not terminated until its existence was revealed in a 1972 newspaper account. "The play has come to life in so many ways and even coming back and visiting those who know the subject best," Feldshuh says. (Three survivors and the lawyer who sued the government saw the play in Tuskegee.) "From a tragedy that cost people their lives, other lives may become more aware and more vital, so there's some legacy of ethical knowledge that can come from the suffering caused by the study." But is a play like this one just too heavy for freshmen? "We are sensitive that this is a very powerful experience, but big questions are a powerful experience," says Palmer. Feldshuh says: "The notion of teaching morality in the educational process is something that should be explored. The play is posing questions rather than giving answers and this is what education is all about."