What academic medicine can learn from #ConcernedStudents1950

In August of 2002, as a spry young adult, I stepped foot onto the University of Missouri’s campus.  Eight years later, I was a double alumnus of my wonderful alma mater, and today, my heart still bleeds black and gold.  Although I was happy to begin a new phase in life, Mizzou was not my first choice for college.

After graduating high school, I had spent a summer at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana with the hopes of attending college there.  I had the perfect plan laid out; I’d try out for the basketball team, get a scholarship, and after college go on to medical school.  It would be just that simple.  The appeal of Xavier to a young black man was, and remains, obvious.  It is a school where the vast majority of people are of your same skin color.  A school where I could be certain that people would understand my background, my jokes, my music, and my interests at large.  That is exactly what I was looking for … somewhere that I would feel comfortable and as a result of that, excel.  Well, summer came and summer went.  In my heart, I was committed to attending Xavier, but at the end of the day, it was financially prudent for me to change plans and attend the University of Missouri.

Upon arrival to what initially seemed like a foreign country to me, I found Mizzou extremely welcoming.  There were many clubs and organizations available to help you find your niche and gain a sense of community.  I continued playing basketball, but on a recreational level rather than competitive.  I was accepted into a program that allowed underrepresented students to do research for pay, and held weekly meetings to prepare us for the various challenges to come along our college journey.  I had Black friends, White friends, Asian friends, Hispanic friends, Purple friends, and etc.  The need for acceptance and comfort that I so desired to have from Xavier was also present at Mizzou; yet, there was a frequent feeling that some people did not want me, or others of my race/ethnicity there.

My take on the #concernedstudents1950 is that it is long overdue.  I think back, and I am embarrassed that my generation did not do more to address the issues of our day.  Perhaps if we had done more, the #concernedstudents1950 movement may never have been necessary.  Many people will minimize the complaints of our students and attempt to paint them in a negative, radical, and self-serving light.  I can tell you this, the people who do so likely have never been in such situations that some of us have faced.  In the academic environment, pertaining to race/ethnicity, the bottom line is that without a sense of welcome and community, it is very difficult to perform well.

I can recall several racially offensive happenings in my collegiate years.  These range from inappropriate use of the “N” word, to cotton being spread out over the grass of our black culture center, to a publication in the school newspaper suggesting that black Greek organizations should stay in their own little world and not associate with the white organizations.  While these might seem trivial to the non-empathetic reader, those of us who have been in such situations understand the resulting feelings of isolation, humiliation, and insecurity capable of deflating one’s confidence.

Ponder this: a situation in which you are a black student and your professor uses the “N” word.  What happens next?  Allow me to enlighten you; all the students in the class immediately turn and look at you.  At that moment, you have to make a decision as to how best to respond.  Do you “put him in check” or let it slide?  In a way, you transition from being just a student, and become the sole justice on the Supreme Court.  Your response will set the precedence for the other students regarding what is acceptable and what is not.   It is a rather hefty responsibility for a young adult simply trying to learn where he fits in the world.

The academic world of medicine can learn a lot from this unfortunate situation.  Consider one of the student demands to increase black faculty on campus.  Is it simply that they desire to see more people who look like they do?  Absolutely not!  It is about mentorship, perspective, network, and ultimately academic progression.  In academic medicine there is a well-known saying, “Publish or Perish”.  This means that if you are not publishing research, you are at constant threat of losing your job (or portion of your salary); losing what puts food on your family’s table.  In 2011, an NIH-commissioned study reported that from the years of 2000 through 2006, black researchers were 10 percent less likely to receive NIH grants than white researchers.  16 percent of black applicants were awarded grants compared to 29 percent of white applicants.  Imagine a young black doctor making the decision between academia and private practice.  Knowing the aforementioned statistics, and looking at the faculty at almost every academic medical institution in the United States (excluding the historically Black colleges and universities), stepping into the world of “publish or perish” takes an extra ounce of courage.

So, this is my two cents regarding increasing the number of black (or any minority for that matter) faculty in academia.  The vast majority of academic medical centers across the country immensely approach this problem wrong.  The start of the solution is not to first go out and increase the number of black/minority faculty.  Rather, the start is the make the students, resident, fellows, and faculty that you already have feel welcomed and valued.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Focus your efforts on retaining the ones you have before bringing in more.  If you retain more, you recruit more; but the opposite is not necessarily true.  How do you do this?  It all starts with mentoring!  Find them mentors; Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Purple, etc. — the race/ethnicity of the mentors do not matter as long as they care about the mentees’ success.  I contend that the first step to solving these issues in academia is to ensure that every black/minority trainee has an invested mentor.  Start there and you will see results.

Even amidst the racial tensions at Mizzou, I 100 percent love my alma mater and given the chance to repeat my education, I would without question choose the University of Missouri all over again.  As I type this blog, these illustrious lyrics parade my thoughts: “Fair Missouri, Old Missouri, Dear Old Varsity. Ours are hearts that fondly love thee, here’s a health to thee!”  Yes, a few bad apples left a rotten taste in my mouth, but the good apples did great things for me which ultimately played a role in the young physician that I have become today.  Had it not been for mentors such as Dr. Linda Blockus, Dr. Susan Renoe, Dr. David Fleming, Dr. Lenworth Johnson, and, of course, Dr. Ellis Ingram; it is quite possible that DiverseMedicine would not exist today, and numerous premedical students would be without this community of support and mentorship.  Such faculty are the champions of the University of Missouri, the champions that give me faith that everything will be okay in the end.

“Dr. Dale” is a physician who blogs at Diverse Medicine.

View 1 Comments >

Most Popular

✓ Join 150,000+ subscribers
✓ Get KevinMD's most popular stories