With a third-place position in the Republican presidential primary, Ben Carson is not an unknown name for most Americans.
The now-presidential hopeful first made his mark as the first neurosurgeon to separate conjoined twins in 1987 — a feat rooted in the medical training he received at the University’s Medical School.
But while he’s known to many Americans, his alum status at the University isn’t as well known — and little has been done to connect the presidential-hopeful to his alma mater, by both the campaign and the University.
Until Wednesday, Carson had yet to visit Ann Arbor while on the campaign trail, and when he did, the visit was brief — a closed-press meeting with Medical School leaders and students before a campaign stop in Ypsilanti and a fundraiser in Ann Arbor. The meeting on campus was closed per the University’s request, according to the Carson campaign.
Later in the day, Carson introduced his health care reform plans not on campus but 30 minutes away, at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. During previous visits to the state, Carson hasn’t visited Ann Arbor, and the University hasn’t made much mention of the candidate since he launched his campaign in May.
The University declined requests for comment about Carson’s time at the University for this story. Mary Masson, a spokesperson for the University of Michigan Health system, also declined multiple interview requests to UMHS and Medical School faculty and administrators on their behalf.
Public Policy senior Cody Giddings, vice chair of the University’s chapter of the College Republicans, said the organization has not been in contact with the Carson campaign, and he does not foresee the candidate making an official visit to the University.
“I do not think Ann Arbor will be one of his future campaign stops, but anything is possible,” he said.
The majority of students approached for this article were not aware Carson had graduated from the University, though a large-scale survey was not conducted.
“I knew, but then again I wouldn’t expect most people to know that he graduated here,” said LSA senior Stephen Culbertson, communications director for the University’s chapter of College Democrats.
“Most people do not associate him with the University of Michigan as far as I know,” he said.
Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott agreed with that sentiment, noting that individuals in the University community are more familiar with his presidential campaign than his University roots.
“I don't think he is well known as an alumnus because he graduated from the Medical School and that was about a generation ago,” Traugott said. “He’s much better known as a candidate than he is as an alum.”
Even those who do know him as a graduate said they do not associate him with the University — or believe he fully represents what the University stands for.
Medical School student Brian Desmond said though he knew Carson was a graduate of the University and his accomplishments as a doctor have made him a figure to be celebrated in the Medical School, he said Carson’s political beliefs are disheartening.
“The thing that I find kind of surprising, or that makes me a little bit sad, is that one of the things that brought me to U of M was the emphasis on kind of celebrating diversity,” Desmond said. “And I don't think that those are things that Dr. Carson — at least in his political campaign — has represented well.”
Desmond also noted that while Carson’s medical career might align with the education emphases of the Medical School — such as evidence-based methodology — his political career has not.
“I think, unfortunately, and it might be because of the political climate he’s in, but I think unfortunately he kind of has a mixed record of actually doing that,” he said. “Some of his statements about climate change kind of go against what is the scientific consensus so I think his practices may be a little more mixed than what he said about using evidence.”
However, Medical School student Ben Long said he knew Carson was a graduate and felt the fact was well regarded. Ever since reading Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” the doctor has been highly influential on Long’s life. Long said Carson’s story is the “main reason” he decided to go into medicine, and he has now attended the same undergraduate and medical school as Carson.
“I'd say he’s one of our best-known graduates,” Long said. “He is obviously really successful in the field of neurosurgery, he's running for president and I think that reflects highly on the Medical School because the sort of motto is ‘the leaders and the best’ and he's one of our probably most prominent graduates but also one of our most prominent minority graduates.”
One of Carson’s draws to many Republican voters are his strong religious ties, which a number of news outlets have contrasted with his scientific background.
However, many students interviewed said they didn’t think those contrasts — for example, Carson has expressed a belief in creationism — have had much of an impact on people’s perceptions of the candidate.
“His life story and how he rose from poverty, and he worked really hard to go to school, I think it's really inspiring,” Long said. “I don’t entirely agree with his creationist views, but it is his religion though so I can sort of understand why that is … I don’t think it reflects badly on him.”
Traugott said he didn’t think being both a doctor and strongly religious individual would necessarily present issues with regard to public opinion.
“There must be a wide range of religious beliefs among doctors, and he has a particular one which he apparently has had throughout his career,” he said. “We won’t know until they start voting in the primaries and caucuses how attractive they are to Republicans.”
Traugott also noted the fact that being a Michigan alum wasn’t necessarily something that would be a draw or a negative for voters.
Culbertson said he believes most Republican candidates don’t appeal to University students, and Carson isn’t an exception.
“As far as the student body is concerned, I don't really believe that Ben Carson appeals to Michigan students, despite what people say about students not being involved or engaged in politics,” he said. “He's kind of an appeal gap here and I don't think the University association is going to be able to overcome that.”
Students who support the Republican Party said Carson’s alum status is also not a draw, though they noted there were many other reasons they could have for supporting him.
“Carson’s accomplishments in the medical field as a University of Michigan Medical School graduate certainly serve as a source of pride for those that support him within the University of Michigan College Republicans but I believe his political policies are the primary reason some in UMCR support him.”