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Student Diversity Council “Pushing Issues Forward”

News April 25, 2021

Student Diversity Council It’s one thing to have your concerns heard – it’s another to see your concerns addressed. The medical students who founded Lewis Katz School of Medicine’s Student Diversity Council focus on both.

“There had been momentum building for something like this for a while,” says Randy Lyde, PhD, a third-year medical student who co-founded the Council in 2019 with classmate Stephanie Fagbemi. The seeds for the Council were sown when a group of students began questioning racial disparities in Temple’s chapter of Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA), the national medical honor society. Today, Lyde is Council Chair and Fagbemi is Vice Chair.

AOA was founded in 1902 in Chicago by nine medical students, Caucasian men, who established that student members in AOA would be the top 25 percent in a graduating class -- as determined by grades and standardized test scores. And so the criteria remained for over a century. Nationally, few students of color have been selected for membership – prompting dismay at medical schools across the country in recent years.

In a 2018 interview with National Public Radio, a dean’s staff member at the Icahn School of Medicine (New York) said, “AOA perpetuates systems that are deeply flawed. We can't justify putting people who are historically at a disadvantage at an even greater disadvantage. It just doesn't seem fair to dangle in front of our students an honorific that we know people are not equally eligible for."

Icahn stopped nominating students to its AOA chapter. More than a dozen medical schools – including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford -- disbanded their chapters, spelling doomsday for a long-coveted credential.

John Daly, MD, FACS, the Dean of Katz – who died in March 2021 -- was very concerned about this issue and had been working with students and faculty to rectify it. “We cannot perpetuate racial inequality or limit our students’ opportunities,” he said, noting that Katz was ready to disband its chapter.

But students pushed back. They did not want AOA to be dissolved at Temple; they wanted the selection criteria to be broadened, made fair, take into account forms of excellence, accomplishment and leadership beyond test scores and GPAs.

But could individual school chapters change criteria set by a national organization? Must “headquarters” make the change? For a while, the situation was unclear. Then AOA took a clarifying stand. While nominees must be in good academic standing and free of professionalism concerns, chapters can absolutely set their own criteria for excellence. AOA made clear that it, too, is committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in medicine.

“That was exactly what we wanted to hear,” said Amy Goldberg, MD, FACS, Temple Health’s head surgeon and Councilor of Katz’s AOA chapter. Now, new inclusion criteria could be developed for Temple’s chapter.

As Dr. Lyde recalls, “Our recommendations were ultimately adopted. In 2020, the number of inductees from underrepresented minorities was the highest it’s been in years – equal to the racial breakdown of the class.”

Moving the Dial

While addressing AOA, students got talking about other diversity and inclusion issues – prompting them, in the spring of 2019, to create the Student Diversity Council. A formal organization would help them address concerns more effectively. Today the Council boasts 60 student members and five subcommittees that work on specific issues.

“The Council acts as a liaison to Katz administration to represent underrepresented minority students’ interests,” Dr. Lyde says. “We strive to promote sustainable and long-standing change.”

After George Floyd’s murder, the Council presented Katz administration with a list of actions demanding immediate attention to make the school more racially just, conscientious member of the North Philadelphia community. 

The points the Council raised—eleven in all—were comprehensive, ranging from examining Katz’s public advocacy practices and increasing Katz’s use of minority-owned businesses to expanding scholarship opportunities for medical students underrepresented in medicine.   

Since then, the Council and Katz administration have worked in partnership, making progress on many of the recommendations and continuing to work on others. Consider these highlights:  

  • To supplement several existing donor-funded scholarships for students underrepresented in medicine, Katz launched the Dean’s Fund for Diversity and Inclusion. This fund supports students with financial need, with a preference for students who are members of racial or ethnic groups historically underrepresented in medical education —and students with demonstrated interest in increasing ethnic or racial diversity in medical education.
  • While funds have always been available at Katz for student-led community service projects, a formal budget has now been created. Project proposals are reviewed by a committee of community members and medical school leaders.  
  • A task force has been created to look more deeply and carefully at issues of race and racism in the curriculum, identifying ways to make it more racially just.
  • To help further Katz’s pursuit of racial equity, Katz’s Center for Urban Bioethics (CUB) is currently recruiting a faculty member with expertise in community-engaged education, health equity and health disparities, and social and racial justice in health and medicine.
  • CUB is working with Temple’s Fox School of Business and the University’s Procurement Office to encourage Black business owners in North Philadelphia to develop meaningful contracts with Katz, Temple Health and Temple University.
  • Katz is working to identify community members who are interested in participating on the Katz  admissions committee.
  • To build on longstanding relationships between Katz and local public schools, CUB is working with Bethune and Kenderton elementary schools, as well as with Dobbins and Mastery Gratz high schools, to develop better environments for students affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
  • Katz is working to improve its process to recruit, and most importantly, retain faculty of color. One strategy is to work to increase the number of under-represented graduate students, then enlist them to stay at Katz for post-doctoral fellowships and eventually as junior faculty in the basic sciences.
  • A consultant has been hired to engage Katz’s leadership team in reflective developmental sessions to help the school keep moving its academic environment toward racial equity. A goal of these sessions is to review School policies and practices to identify and minimize structural racism’s impact on our students, faculty and staff.

A Long-Term Mission

Kathleen Reeves, MD, FAPA, is a senior dean’s staff member at Katz who is widely respected  for advocating for equity in all its forms.

“Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Offices of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and Admissions along with students and faculty, Katz’s current first- and second-year MD candidate classes are more representative of the population we serve, with more Black and Latinx students than ever before. This has allowed for an important voice that hasn’t been heard in the past,” she explains.

The Student Diversity Council sees Dr. Reeves as a key ally – along with Katz’s Office of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OHEDI) and the Center for Urban Bioethics (CUB). It also had a strong ally in John Daly, MD, FACS, the school’s late dean and in the school's senior leadership team.

Dr. Reeves commended Dr. Daly for his commitment to change -- and credits Katz students for “having the courage to bring up difficult issues to people in power, bringing attention to injustices that can marginalize students, patients and faculty.”

Having support from the very top has been instrumental to the Student Diversity Council’s success. Each month, the Council’s steering committee meet with school leadership to discuss issues and keep pushing things forward.

“The energy, enthusiasm and wisdom displayed by these students is palpable,” Dr. Daly had said. “We have made progress but there is still much work to be done. This is not an overnight process. Rushing to solutions will not lead to real, sustainable change but we are most definitely on the right path.” 

Dr. Lyde says the support the Council has received is heartening. “We could not be happier with all of the support and interest,” he says. “We all want the same thing – to make Katz a better place for students and the broader community. “

Continuing the work that Dr. Daly started with the Council, Katz leadership and the Council are strengthening Katz as a more culturally aware, responsive, socially-just medical school and conscientious North Philadelphia community member.

- Giselle Zayon