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Jan. 18, 2012 Volume 33, No. 16

School of Medicine seeks to increase diversity

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IN PURSUIT OF DIVERSITY Medical school Dean Robert Churchill has worked to understand the diversity issues MU’s medical school faces. Photo courtesy of the School of Medicine


Dean Robert Churchill speaks at Leadership in Diversity Series

As the new medical school dean in 2009, Robert Churchill was horrified to hear that alumni were discouraging prospective students from applying to their alma mater. Many had experienced discriminatory behavior from their own classmates or faculty and hadn’t returned to the School of Medicine since graduation.

At this fall’s inaugural Leadership in Diversity Series discussion Nov. 29, Churchill spoke about his efforts to transform the medical school into an environment where students of all stripes would feel comfortable.

Since Churchill became dean, he has worked to understand the root of the issues surrounding MU’s medical school. Churchill said that with the growing minority populations in the U.S., there was a need to increase diversity within the school to maintain quality education and care for patients.

Despite the recent census estimates that minorities comprise more than a 30 percent share of the entire U.S. population, Churchill said only 6 percent of today’s physicians are either Hispanic or black.

“Most people like to go to physicians who are more like them,” he said at the event. “We are not going to achieve the goals of the medical school without diversity in the faculty, staff and student body.”

For the last couple of years, Churchill has set out to interview alumni to see what their issues were with the medical school. One alumnus said he was surrounded by faculty members when he took tests because “they couldn’t understand how a man of color could get such good grades.”

In total, Churchill interviewed nearly 30 alumni, and he invited them to return to campus to mentor students. “No one has declined,” Churchill said.

The med school was revamped internally as well. The admissions department was advised on the educational benefits of diversity, including looking beyond MCAT scores and GPAs.

Churchill said he’s pleased with recent results. Traditionally, underrepresented populations by race, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background in the medical school have more than doubled in the past year — the current freshman class has nine students from these groups, while the class before had four.

Churchill embraces a definition of diversity that is broader, and cited an example from his medical school days, when he shared a cadaver with Gary, who had cerebral palsy.

“Every student who spent time with Gary knew more about cerebral palsy than we would’ve learned from my two-hour lecture,” Churchill said. “We learned from each other.

“Part of the education is not just what you get in the lecture,” he continued. “It’s about how you learn about things that are different from you by people who are different than you.”

Churchill said one of the most important ways the med school is working to attract more ethnically diverse classes is by reaching out to students when they are young. Ellis Ingram is the senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the School of Medicine and works with several projects to reach this objective.

For about 17 years, Ingram has sponsored Caleb, The Science Club, which starts students on the science track when they are as young as 10 years old. The program is free and open to the public.

The School of Medicine has also recently become a national partner with Cristo Rey, a network of about 25 secondary schools around the country composed primarily of African American and Hispanic students.

Students from Kansas City’s Cristo Rey high school are offered a three-day workshop at MU to participate in medical-related activities, such as CPR certification and professional shadowing.

“You have to start young,” Ingram said. “You have to personally start working with public school systems and get more engaged in the community.” In order to continue to promote diversity initiatives internally and externally, Ingram said he is constantly “defining synergies” that are already available within the medical school.

“You can’t hire someone to do diversity in every little area of this huge health system,” he said. For instance, Ingram spoke with one of the cardiology fellows who in turn planned an activity to invite minority undergraduate students over to see the department.

“It just takes passion and interest,” Ingram said. “We’re trying to inspire and encourage people to think of these issues, because I don’t have all the ideas.” 

Churchill said faculty and staff diversity are also important elements of the medical school that he hopes to see in the future.

He admits that faculty and staff have seen a slower change, but understands that not everything will happen overnight.

“We have to spend more time in the hiring process to do it right,” he said.

“By the end of the decade, I want this school to be in the top decibel in everything,” Churchill said, emphasizing diversity and quality of care as the chief initiatives. “It just takes time to move the needle.”

Megan Cassidy