In his Commencement address to the Physician Associate Class of 2003, Charles A. Morgan III, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, offered a cautionary tale about an experiment done at Yale in the early 1960s. Stanley Milgram, Ph.D., a psychologist, wanted to test people’s acceptance of authority. Test subjects were asked to play the role of a “teacher” who would administer increasingly strong electric shocks each time a “learner” failed to answer a question correctly. Unbeknownst to the “teachers,” the learners were actors feigning a pained response to the shocks.

“No one was prepared for the results of that study,” Morgan said. With prodding from the experimenters, most subjects in the experiment were willing to administer up to 450 volts, despite the screams of the actor portraying the learner.

“Milgram believed subjects performed as they did because they had an extremely difficult time disobeying authority. Why am I telling you all this today?” Morgan asked. As they begin their careers, he continued, the 35 new physician associates will become authorities themselves and will have to maintain their habit of critical thinking, Morgan said. He encouraged them to ask, “What has someone told me, and why do I believe it?” He also suggested that they must be willing to accept new or contradictory information, admit mistakes and change a diagnosis. “Pay attention to the evidence that doesn’t conform to your hypothesis,” he said. “You need to question authority. You need to think about what you do.”

Class President Peggy Peelman Vollstad praised her classmates for their dedication and willingness to help others: September 11, 2001, which came on the 22nd day of their studies, reminded them of why they had chosen to become physician associates. Some students immediately volunteered with the Red Cross. Others donated blood.

“It has been a long and arduous road … to attain this privilege of being a health care provider,” she said. “I urge you to step off and reflect on why you became a physician associate.”