By Eleanor Hoover Dianna Waggoner
October 17, 1977 12:00 PM

All in all, it has been a rough semester for affirmative action programs, particularly at the University of California Medical School at Davis. First came the case of Allan Bakke, who persuaded the state supreme court that the school’s policy of saving 16 openings a year for minority students had deprived him of admission simply because he is white. Next, the Carter administration filed a U.S. Supreme Court brief on the case that supported affirmative action in principle but implicitly questioned the school’s quota system for achieving it. The high court will hear arguments in the Bakke case this week, but meanwhile another challenge has been leveled against the med school’s admissions program—this one questioning the very meaning of the term “disadvantaged.”

The plaintiff in the case is Rita Greenwald Clancy, an A-minus graduate of UCLA and the daughter of a poor Russian-Jewish immigrant family. Her complaint is not that the special admissions program exists but rather that she was excluded from it because she is Caucasian. The argument convinced U.S. Judge Thomas J. MacBride to let her start classes two weeks ago pending the court’s decision on Bakke. “She was petrified on that first day,” recalls her husband, Patrick, a public defender who is also co-counsel in the case. “There is enough pressure in the first week of med school without all this.”

Whether or not Rita was disadvantaged before arriving at Davis, on campus she is a minority of one. During registration she was handed a letter warning her of the university’s right to dismiss her should she or Bakke be defeated in court. Later a black teaching assistant walked out of one of her classes, citing “ideological differences.” Still, Rita is determined. “Being a doctor is a dream I’ve had ever since I was a kid,” she says.

Gentle, soft-spoken and living away from home for the first time at 22, Clancy might seem ill prepared for confrontation except for the hard life as an immigrant. Until she was 14 she lived in Russia with her parents, both survivors of World War II concentration camps. When they emigrated to L.A. she spoke no English and was dropped back a grade in school. Three years later brain surgery left her father incapacitated, and the family went on public assistance. Clancy took part-time jobs to help out, eventually working her way through UCLA. Rejected at Davis, she had resigned herself to attending pharmacology school when Pat, whom she met in college and married two years ago, insisted on forcing the issue. “We were inside three courts in one week,” Pat’s co-counsel, Merritt Weisinger, recalls of their whirlwind legal battle. “We took on a major constitutional issue—and that doesn’t happen to some lawyers in 25 years of professional practice. I haven’t had so much fun in my whole life.”

If Bakke wins, Rita’s place in the school will be secure. If he loses, she will have to fight her own case through the courts. But the Clancys have faced challenge before—including the inevitable intramarital question over whose career should take precedence. (“Our agreement is that I will go wherever Rita has to go to become a doctor, and after that she will go where my law practice is,” says Pat.) For the moment Rita is leaving the legalities to her husband and concentrating on a cadaver named Heathcliff. “If we lose I would probably take some graduate courses in science and then apply again,” she says. “But I am not thinking that far ahead. I’m just getting by from day to day.”