Continuing the conversation

Continuing the conversation: Towards antiracist academic institutions – Next steps reflections

As a health equity nerd, there are few things that excite me more than the opportunity to hear folks discuss concrete strategies for making academic public health and medical institutions more equitable. Mid-September, Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) hosted a national all-star panel of professionals in academia, all well-versed in topics regarding health equity and race. The event entitled, Towards Antiracist Academic Institutions: Next Steps, served as a segment in the ongoing Public Health Conversations series at BUSPH.

The expert panel shared insight on making academic institutions more fair, authentically diverse, and adaptive for fostering learning hubs of true belonging. The discussion that took place had so much to offer in terms of enrichment and growth for all in attendance. As a community comprised of public health professionals, students, and staff, it also served as an opportunity for assessing our progress as an institution.

The symposium encouraged a reflection of painful events in our nation that amplified the necessity and urgency for equity on all levels. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, institutions of all kinds scrambled to publicly declare visions for racial equity, assuring the public of their earnest commitment, posting “diversity and inclusion” statements on their websites, and sometimes even putting actions to their words. But two years later, many are left scratching their heads as to whether anything has changed at all. It is the very reason conversations such as the one that took place at BUSPH are crucial to accountability and tracking progress.

The half-day symposium was framed around two panels – the first which addressed efforts to build anti-racist institutional communities, and the second around anti-racist institutional policies. A lot to cover in just three and a half hours (you could arguably spend the same amount of time just defining “anti-racist”). But each panelist mastered the challenge for time, with clear and impactful presentations on how to enforce transformation.

Change is hard (Just ask my dusty home exercise equipment). For an institution, it can feel vulnerable and taxing, because it often means shaking things up and being exposed to risks. It can mean asking people to give up some power; or even (gasp) consider the power they have. It may require a shift of existing resources – material and human-centered – or adding new ones entirely. So why do it? Why address equity, belonging, and justice?

Amid the plethora of compelling concepts and ideas that surfaced during the two panels, some of the main takeaways that stood out are summarized below:

The best available evidence suggests that authentically diverse and equitable academic institutions are just better. Students learn more from diverse groups of peers and faculty; there are more opportunities for fruitful collaboration when all faculty aren’t coming from the same background and perspective. Most importantly, anyone who wants to do good work in academia deserves to know that they belong and will be supported equitably by their institution.

We need to recognize the extra burden of “representation” and unrewarded labor that faculty from historically excluded (groups face when entering academic institutions. Being selected to serve on Diversity & Inclusion committees and forums is far more likely. There is an increased demand to be informal advisors to students who have similar identities. There may also be more requests for guest lecturer because of their “unique perspectives”. With all the extra work involved, institutions without the proper support and resources in place can set out a very different course for success for faculty of color. Institutions working towards an anti-racist agenda should account for labor-intensive responsibilities that come with representation, and work to redress the imbalance. That can mean ensuring adequate mentorship for early-career folks; extended relief from teaching or committee obligations; or providing incentives and compensation for doing the work faculty of color are so often asked to do for free.

Learning about racism in the health sciences and public health can no longer be optional. Some universities are now requiring all students to take a course on racism; however, we will continue to disservice future health practitioners and overall communities until all academic curriculums are implement systemic racism and health as a core study. Health professionals without a working understanding of how racism impacts health and healthcare can do actual damage. For perspective, a recent survey revealed that a large proportion of current medical students still believe racist myths about the bodies of black patients. Education around racism should not be negotiable.

We need buy-in at the highest levels and all levels to make meaningful institutional change. The Diversity & Inclusion committee you volunteer on can meet forever, creating action plans and blueprints, but without investment and support from the top not much will happen. That said, there are a lot of domains for action and they all need immediate attention – we can address racism in student admissions policies, faculty/staff hiring, retention, promotion efforts, our syllabi and teaching requirements, research agendas, and in our day-to-day interactions with each other. There may be existing policies that look race-neutral but are having a differential impact on personnel due to race, such as tenure and promotion criteria. These need to be examined and rooted out. There is a lot more work to do and distributing effort at all levels really can produce an institutional culture shift that sticks and brings lasting and meaningful change.

Reflections were offered by moderator Dr. Candice Belanoff, ScD, MPH, Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.


Watch the full Public Health Conversation here:

Session 2- Towards Antiracist Academic Institutions Next Steps from BU School of Public Health on Vimeo.

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