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Balancing Yale School of Medicine

Robert Alpern is proud of the progress Yale School of Medicine (YSM) has made in diversifying both the types of science and research pursued in New Haven, and the people pursuing that science and research. Diversity is central to the mission of scientific excellence and leadership at YSM, from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to variety in intellectual and academic pursuits, to variation when it comes to race, gender, creed, and nationality, YSM strives to be a national leader. Yale Medicine Magazine sat down with Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, to hear his thoughts on the subject, as well as why he favors a strong commitment to ongoing diversification.

Given that Yale is one of the oldest and best medical schools in the United States, how has diversity played a role in maintaining YSM’s competitive edge?
Diversity in medicine and in biomedical research is critical to both fields. A diverse scientific and medical workforce understands and appreciates the needs of a diverse patient population. In addition, patients frequently prefer physicians who are similar to them, and thus understand their issues. We serve a broad range of patients and require the medical and personal expertise needed to do so effectively.

How do we stack up against peer institutions in this department?
Yale strives to be a leader, and we’ve put significant effort into creating a diverse faculty, but we still have a long way to go. The diversity of our faculty is increasing, but similar to other institutions, the higher you go in academic rank, the less diversity there is.

Is there an active push to diversify the faculty and administrative leadership, or has the recent diversification been the consequence of more qualified applicants—the pipeline beginning to deliver on its promise?
There has been a dedicated effort to identify and recruit outstanding faculty and administrative leadership who also bring diversity to the medical school. The last two department chair hires, both of whom are women, have been exceptional physicians and leaders; and the incoming dean, the first woman at the School of Medicine to hold this position, is incredibly impressive. That still leaves us with 80% of department chairs who are fairly homogeneous in the way that they have been traditionally. Even today, women who want careers in medicine face more barriers in their careers as they move up the ladder to become professors or department chairs. The pipeline is producing outstanding women and minority faculty, but we need to be diligent in our efforts to identify them and develop their careers. We’re living at a time when we are beginning to make progress.

It seems like every year, incoming classes of students are more diverse: economically, culturally, geographically, racially, and religiously. How has this changed since you were a medical student?
When I was a medical student there was some, but very little diversity in the medical school classes. Women and underrepresented minorities were admitted to medical school but were few in number. Gender diversity has now been achieved with most medical school classes close to 50% women. Underrepresented minorities remain underrepresented, but the numbers have improved. There remains much work to be done.