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Increasing minority presence on the medical faculty

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


For more than a century after the first African-American graduated from the School of Medicine in 1857, only about two dozen others followed suit. That changed dramatically in the early 1970s, and by the time Forrester Lee, M.D. ’79, HS ’83, joined the faculty in 1986, African-Americans comprised nearly 10 percent of each class, and the number of Hispanic and Asian-American students was rising.

“I think that everyone assumed, as did I, that because we were bringing large numbers of minority students into the entry point of careers in medicine, that would translate into individuals entering into the faculty ranks,” said Lee, professor of medicine and assistant dean for multicultural affairs. “Ten years later, I looked up and in the Department of Medicine there were two African-American faculty members, myself and Gary Desir. I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. Nothing had changed in 10 years.”

The numbers are better today—5 percent of faculty members are Black or Hispanic—but the proportions still lag far behind those for students, despite several efforts to address the issue. The Office of Minority Affairs, which the School of Medicine created in 1989 to recruit and support African-American and Latino students, became the Office of Multicultural Affairs in 1995 and expanded its mission to include all ethnic and racial minorities, and to cover faculty as well. However, Lee said, it soon became apparent that recruiting faculty “probably was for Yale the most difficult area for demonstrating success.” Although some minority faculty were being recruited, they were more likely than their non-minority colleagues to leave Yale.

In 2006, a new position was created within the faculty affairs office—director for professional development and equity—to help identify and address this issue. Then, in 2007, junior and senior faculty members began meeting informally to discuss how they could better support their colleagues from under-represented minorities. The result was the Minority Organization for Retention and Expansion (MORE), whose goal is to attract and support minority faculty members.

“There are often some unique barriers and challenges that under-represented folks face,” said MORE co-chair Cindy Crusto, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in psychiatry. “We’re about trying to identify what those are, and trying to devise multiple strategies to address them.”

Black and Hispanic faculty members have been steadily increasing their presence on the faculty over the past 10 years: In 2004, there were 22 black and 21 Hispanic faculty members, and now there are 40 Black and 47 Hispanic faculty. Most of these are still at the junior level, reflecting the 10 to 15 years it usually takes for a junior faculty member to rise into the senior ranks, depending on the track they follow. MORE’s founders realized that young faculty members from under-represented groups seem to have a harder time finding professional and social support among their colleagues. “It became clear to us that in order to retain people, they had to have mentors who can shepherd them through the promotion process and give advice on how to position themselves to do well in an academic community,” said Gary V. Desir, M.D. ’80, HS ’83, FW ’87, interim chair of internal medicine and a co-chair of MORE. “We try to be a catalyst for interaction between new faculty members and the existing faculty.”

MORE works to foster a welcoming and supportive environment for young professors, helping them to find mentors, offering information on promotions, publishing, and other intricacies of academic medicine, and helping them to interact formally and informally with the larger medical school and university community. “All of these things are really important to feeling connected to a place, to an institution, and to feel like you have a contribution to make, and that your contribution is valued,” said Crusto.

An ad hoc retention committee has been formed to respond if a minority faculty member is taking steps to leave Yale. The group has had some success with promotion and retention in the past few years, but recruitment has proved harder. Young faculty members, especially minorities, prefer to be in larger cities, Desir said. Each search committee now has a diversity representative, and search committee chairs receive training on diversity. These steps are important, but more work needs to be done to identify and attract new faculty, Desir said.

Other initiatives include collaboration and outreach to students, residents, and fellows, and engagement with institutional leaders involved with expanding diversity and inclusion at Yale, such as the director for professional development and equity, and the university’s chief diversity officer. The organization holds monthly meetings and throughout the academic year sponsors special events for students, residents, fellows and faculty, including colleagues from the schools of nursing and public health.

“From a teaching perspective, it’s critically important to have professionals who understand the diversity of the populations that they may be working with,” Crusto said. This is especially important, as the student body has continued to become more diverse: Since the mid-1980s, Hispanic/Latino and Asian-American students began to comprise an increasing proportion of students, and now about 40 percent of students are Asian-American (21 percent), African-American (11 percent), or Hispanic/Latino (8 percent). A diverse medical community also ensures a variety of points of view in research and helps to provide better medical care for communities of color in New Haven. “I see it as crucial to the mission of the university in terms of outreach to the community,” Crusto said.

The annual student reception at the start of the academic year is one way Lee marks the growth and cohesion of the minority medical community at Yale and in New Haven. He remembers attending at the start of his first year of medical school, when it was a small gathering of 20 or 25 students. Now, MORE plans and organizes this longstanding event, sending about 400 invitations every year to people from across the medical campus and the New Haven medical community. “It’s an incredibly welcoming moment for anybody who attends,” he said. “You look around, and it looks like progress is being made‒and progress is being made.”