This article has been updated to reflect the version that ran in print on Nov. 30.
Ten days ago, in a Nov. 19 email to the medical school community, Dean of the Yale School of Medicine Robert Alpern responded to student demands for increased diversity and inclusion at the School. In his email, Alpern discussed many issues recently raised by students and announced several new measures to improve the School’s diversity.
Alpern’s plan includes the creation of the position of chief diversity officer for the school and the formation of a Student Diversity and Inclusion Group to advise the dean, as well as a re-examination of the structure of the existing Office of Multicultural Affairs, which works to increase the school’s sensitivity to minority concerns and issues in medical education and practice. In his email, Alpern announced that the School’s Curriculum Committee will assess teaching related to health disparities and social justice issues, as well as support University training of medical school administrators to better recognize and combat racism and bias.
Alpern’s email came three days after dozens of medical school students submitted an open letter calling for the administration to address issues of diversity and inclusion at the medical school. In the letter, which has been signed by 98 members of the medical school community and 133 others, students submitted six demands and 35 subdemands, which include “antioppressive” curricular reform, diversification of the faculty and student bodies and the creation of a new means of reporting biases to the School’s administration.
In his email, Alpern said the subjection of certain students at the medical school to microaggressions and other negative behavior was “intolerable for them” and “unacceptable to everyone at the Yale School of Medicine.” Referring to University President Peter Salovey’s Nov. 17 email announcing changes for the University, Alpern wrote that the medical school supports the president’s commitment to diversifying Yale.
Addressing the issue of faculty diversity at the medical school, Alpern said the administration’s efforts to diversify the faculty have not been as successful as hoped.
“The medical school administration has long recognized the need to expand the diversity of the School’s faculty, but while their commitment to this aim has been great, success at recruiting a more diverse faculty has not,” Alpern wrote. He added that the administration had engaged the search firm Witt/Keiffer and appointed a search committee to select a YSM chief diversity officer.
Alpern’s response drew a positive reaction from Woody Lee, associate dean for multicultural affairs at the medical school, who said the message was “strong” and “timely.”
“Dean Alpern has issued a strong and timely response to the Yale medical community that makes it clear that he has listened, learned and now committed himself to an accountable role in leading the medical school in creating an environment that welcomes and supports everyone equally,” Lee said.
Lee added that Alpern understands the scope of this challenge and has taken important steps to bring institutional processes and resources to bear on a broad range of institutional policies and practices. In an email to the News, Alpern said he anticipates the search process for the chief diversity officer will last about six months, adding that the officer will be involved in every aspect of faculty diversity from recruitment to career development.
In his message to the medical school community, Alpern said the Office of Multicultural Affairs is an important resource at the School, and acknowledged student concerns that the office lacks resources.
“An important resource for our minority students is the Office of Multicultural Affairs,” he wrote. “Over the past decade, the office has assumed additional responsibilities and students have raised concerns that the office is undersupported. Woody Lee and I have discussed this and he has agreed to consider a reorganization of the office, including a staffing plan. Any additional staff requirements will be addressed.”
Lee said that the term diversity now covers a broader range of identities and interests than imagined when the office was originally formed 20 years ago.
“Reorganization will mean expanding our capacity to support individual and affiliated organizations without diluting our historical mission to recruit and serve students underrepresented in medicine,” he added.
Lee said Alpern has committed to an institutional process through the medical school’s Curriculum Committee to assess whether the new curriculum, which was brought in this year, adequately addresses issues of structural racism and health-inequity issues which students raised in the demands they submitted. He added that Alpern would prepare a plan to bolster the curriculum if it was found that the curriculum did not adequately address these issues of study.
In his email, Alpern said communication was “paramount” to addressing the issues raised by students. He also said that, in addition to existing monthly meetings with student leadership, he proposes the formation of a “Student Diversity and Inclusion Group” which would meet with him regularly.
“[The group will represent] the many student affinity groups,” Alpern said in the letter. “I would meet regularly with this group to discuss the progress we are making in addressing these issues.”
The letter was met with “cautious optimism” from Ben Artin SPH ’18 MED ’18, who signed the Nov. 16 open letter, who described Alpern’s message as “compatible with meaningful and lasting improvements to the culture of Yale and YSM.”
Artin added that Alpern’s response and the students’ letter have differing levels of detail, citing as an example the students’ specific demand for longitudinal health-justice courses and Alpern’s more general commitment to curriculum assessment. He said, however, that he does not find this surprising or inherently troubling.
“The students and the dean bring different perspectives, and [the] success of this effort will hinge on aligning those perspectives and following through,” Artin said. “I see the students’ demands and the dean’s response as the beginning of what I hope will be a pivotal and productive process.”
Artin said that for the improvements to become a reality, everyone at the medical school must make a lasting commitment, put in some hard work and maintain an ongoing dialogue. He added that he was honored to be a part of the process and to have many like-minded peers.
The Yale School of Medicine had a total enrolment of 1,223 students, as of June 2014.