Harvard med students demand diversity, but no more Asians please

Harvard Medical School (HMS) students styling themselves the “Racial Justice Coalition” are demanding that their next Dean be “committed to social justice both inside and outside our community.”

Several dozen medical and dental students, decked out in white lab coats, marched across campus last week to call attention to the cause, according to The Harvard Crimson, ending the procession at Massachusetts Hall, where they planned to present a petition to University President Drew Faust that they claimed boasts more than 300 signatures.

Jeffrey Flier, the current med school dean, plans to step down at the end of July to take a sabbatical before returning to teaching, and Faust is currently working with Provost Alan Garber to select his replacement.

Taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the protracted hiring process, the Racial Justice Coalition’s petition asks Faust and Garber to select a candidate who would use the position to promote diversity at the school.

“As a historian of the Civil War and American South, you can appreciate how the legacy of our institution has shaped its present condition,” the petition cajoles Faust, reminding her that the med school’s first attempt at integration in 1850 was abandoned after white students petitioned against sharing their classrooms with blacks.

The Coalition asserts that too little progress has been made in the ensuing 165 years, noting that just 5.9 percent of full-time faculty “are ‘underrepresented in medicine’,” 17 percent of full professors are women, and “none of the 15 Advisory Deans of HMS societies are underrepresented in medicine.”

They similarly lament the insufficient diversity of the student body, complaining that “while … 21.7 percent of HMS students are underrepresented in medicine,” just two of the 165 current first-year students are black females, and contending that “these numbers are not reflective of a nation in which African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians comprise 32 percent of the population.”

According to The Boston Globe, Asians and Pacific Islanders are not mentioned in the petition because they are not considered “underrepresented” by the Association of American Medical Colleges. As of 2012, the two groups together constituted 18.9 percent of the HMS student body.

Arguing that “racial, gender, and socioeconomic barriers have perpetuated suffering by denying millions access to healthcare and the right to lead healthy lives,” and that the lack of diversity within HMS “reflects rather than repudiates these barriers,” the Racial Justice Coalition concludes that “we need a leader committed to social justice both inside and outside our community.”

Such a candidate, they elaborate, “will fight for measurable increases in diversity among administration, faculty, and students” and “has demonstrated a commitment to social justice.” Additionally, as a way of ensuring a good-faith effort on the part of the university, the Coalition demands that at least 25 percent of candidates interviewed for the position “come from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine.”

Faust was not on hand to receive the petition when the activists showed up to deliver it Thursday and has yet to offer an official response. However, but she did share her preliminary reactions in an interview with The Crimson shortly after a draft of the petition was made public earlier in the week, saying she agrees with most, but not all, of the demands.

“I think that the point that the person who leads the Med School ought to be a person with a deep commitment to diversity is absolutely right,” she explained. “We want the person who is going to see this as really an essential part of being an excellent dean.”

Faust stopped short of endorsing the Coalition’s final demand, however, saying, “how we accomplish that [goal] I don’t think comes through quotas on interviews.”

Provost Garber was less circumspect in a statement obtained by The Crimson several days before, pledging to consider the petition’s demands during the hiring process and averring that the most important qualities a candidate should possess “are excellence in fostering medical education and biomedical research, and also ensuring that the HMS community both reflects and serves the needs of underrepresented minorities and others in our society who face inequalities and differential access to healthcare.”

Leaders of the Racial Justice Coalition say they plan to await a formal response from President Faust, which they hope will come within the next two weeks, before determining the next steps that the group will take to advance its goals.

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