Why Diversity Matters

Look around. Diversity is an issue for UF, but it's a problem HSC leaders are trying to solve.

The grandmother, a black woman in her 70s, seemed surprised when Donna Parker, M.D., walked into the room at the Alachua County Health Department. It was 14 years ago, but Parker still remembers the woman's exact words:

"You're the first black doctor I have ever met."

"Not first black female doctor, but first black doctor," recalls Parker, now an assistant dean of minority affairs in the UF College of Medicine. "That was in Gainesville, with Shands right here."

In a perfect world, this sentence would say a conversation like that doesn't happen anymore.

Times certainly have changed. More black and Hispanic students are entering medicine and other health-care fields today than in prior years. Health care, in general, is more diverse, especially in fields such as public health.

But, "more diverse" is relative. Only 6 percent of the country's practicing physicians are Hispanic, black or Native American, while these groups comprise 26 percent of the population, according to an Association of American Medical Colleges report.

Within the UF Health Science Center, the number of underrepresented minorities in the student body is encouraging - in the College of Nursing, for example, the number of black, Hispanic and Native American students is above the national average for nursing professionals. But when HSC students walk into a classroom, the chances of finding a minority professor are slim. There is only one black professor in each of the colleges of Nursing and Dentistry, and out of the 973 faculty members in the College of Medicine, only 15 are black and 44 are Hispanic.

Why? The answers aren't simple. The number of minority students entering academia is small, and institutions are competing for these recruits. Retaining minority faculty poses unique challenges, too. And faculty members say some potential recruits may shy away from UF because of the low numbers of minority faculty members or because of Gainesville's small size.

The problem is complex, but it's one HSC leaders aim to solve. Last April, the HSC established a new office geared toward increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in the faculty.

"If our graduates don't reflect the diversity of the overall population, then we aren't doing our job," said Douglas Barrett, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs.

"We're taking this seriously. Talking about it is nice, but measuring it at the end of the day is what's important."

Diversity matters, not only because it adds to the value of education, bringing in different points of view, but because studies have shown it goes a long way toward improving health disparities, says Rebecca Rainer Pauly, M.D., the associate vice president for diversity and equity in the Health Science Center.

"We want students to be able to look up to faculty with whom they can identify," Pauly says of diversity's impact. "Also all faculty should have equal opportunity, and with cultural competence and consciousness, better outcomes are seen in health care. Patients are more compliant. There's better preventive medicine."

Already, strides are being made. Pauly has established an advisory board of UF and Gainesville community leaders charged with tackling issues related to diversity. She's investigating programs that work and has already started a program with UF's P.K. Yonge School to encourage middle schoolers from different backgrounds to enter science.

"Once students are in the pipeline, then hopefully we will be able to encourage them to stay in academics," Pauly says. "We want to build a culture that is accepting and promoting of all."

An inescapable problem

Pauly has always been tuned in to issues related to diversity, but the problem became achingly apparent to her last year while working on the College of Medicine's accreditation.

"That's when it really hit me that we are deficient in our diversity as a faculty," Pauly said. "I took those numbers to Dr. Barrett and we discussed this real need."

For Gloria McWhirter, the problem is inescapable. As the only black faculty member in the College of Nursing and the college's director of minority retention and recruiting, McWhirter sees the need for more diversity every time a student knocks on her door asking for help. And they do, all the time.

It's important for students to be able to see faculty who look like them, especially for minority students who are often the first in their families to go to college, McWhirter says. Because there are fewer black and Hispanic faculty members than there are students, many minority faculty members become "overburdened with mentorship," says Parker. The students McWhirter mentors aren't always from her college, but she says she can't turn anyone who needs help away.

"I seek out the students of color and make sure they're doing what they need to do," McWhirter says. "I know how to get to them."

Allyson Hall, Ph.D., an associate professor of health services research, management and policy in the College of Public Health Professions, says minority students tend to seek out mentors they can relate to more. It allows them to see how they can achieve the same things.

"They know intuitively that I really want them to succeed," Hall says. "I feel a real sense of responsibility to mentor them."

Mentorship also makes a big difference in student achievement, Parker says. The College of Medicine Office of Minority Affairs, which was established in the 1980s by HSC students, sends e-mails to students before exams to encourage them.

"Research has shown students will do better just by knowing there is someone expecting them to do well," Parker says. "We know they have the ability, otherwise they wouldn't have been accepted here. But there are other factors that can lead to success or a lack of success.

"We still have students who are told they are only here because of affirmative action. These are bright students who have sometimes come through the junior honors medical program. They get downhearted, which is another reason why the (minority affairs) office needs to be here so they have a place to voice these kinds of actions that take place."

Part of the problem, faculty and administrators say, is the mindset some people have about diversity, seeing it as a numbers game - meeting quotas to check off a box - and not understanding the value differences add to education and to the workforce. "Excellence and diversity go hand-in-hand," says Bruce Kone, M.D., dean of the College of Medicine. "You can't teach students to be effective doctors without diversity."

Planting seeds

When it comes to increasing diversity in academia and health-care, what happens before a student even starts college matters more than many realize. Students whose parents didn't go to college or who live in poor areas may not even think of college or the health professions as an option.

"We have to go to the middle schools and show kids there is more to life than basketball and cars," McWhirter says. "We have to reach for bigger stars." Because P.K. Yonge is a model for other schools in the state - and because it has a racially and economically diverse student body - Pauly hopes the program she is establishing with the school will help nurture students' interests in science.

The UF College of Medicine Office of Minority Affairs also brings in high school students for programs that expose them to research, medicine and other health professions.

"Some students don't even have the ability to dream that this is something they can do," Parker says. "I encourage my patients to dream about other things than just what they see in their communities."

Minority students are also more likely to need help learning tools to get into college, like test-taking skills, McWhirter says.

Abi Adewumi, a UF assistant professor of dentistry who hails from Nigeria and advises the group for dental students focused on multicultural issues, says, "I empathize with kids who haven't had that upbringing. If you have no hope you have nothing to hold onto."

Admissions based solely on race have not been allowed in Florida since the One Florida law was passed in 1999. But Pauly says UF should try to attract qualified minority students who may have skills that sometimes go unnoticed. The goal is to give these students more tools to achieve.

Financial reasons could keep some students and faculty from UF, too. More money for scholarships, salaries and bonuses could help, faculty members say. UF also has to battle misconceptions. McWhirter plants seeds about UF when she attends national conferences, but because of the university's lagging numbers in minority faculty, some people have doubts about UF. Parker has noticed this too. Some, they say, have referred to UF as "a racist school."

Then there's the Gainesville factor. Gainesville isn't a sprawling metropolis, and some recruits don't get to see what's available while they're here. Pauly has been working with the minority community to change these perceptions.

Hall agrees, saying, "Gainesville has a wealth of opportunities. I do salsa dancing here. Once I found that group I was fine. Once you start digging deeper, you will find what you're looking for."

Nurturing growth

In November, the HSC held its first "Diversity Dialogue," an event Pauly designed to help bring diversity to the forefront. Faculty members say talking about the university's diversity needs is an important first step. It's a topic people often avoid or "dance around," McWhirter says.

"What's wrong with race? Put it out on the table and talk about it," she says. The discussions also allow colleges and faculty to learn from each other and from the community, Pauly says.

"A lot of people have been thinking about diversity and not saying it," Pauly says. "To me, a real concrete accomplishment in response to the November diversity dialogue is Dean Kone's desire to highlight diversity as a core value in the missions statement of the College of Medicine."

McWhirter says she also hopes more programs will be developed to nurture minority faculty and students. Because minority faculty members spend so much time mentoring and working on committees, they often get behind on tenure goals.

Becoming more diverse may take awhile, Pauly says. But the ball is rolling, especially now that an office is in place to focus on these issues across the health center.

"If it's not out there as a target, then no one is going to think of coming together … it's sort of that consciousness. The next step is to put it into practice."

About the Author

April Frawley Lacey's picture

April Frawley Lacey

Editor / College of Medicine Science Writer

Editor of The Post and a medical writer in the HSC Office of News & Communications. Before joining the HSC News & Communications staff, she was a reporter and assistant...Read More