Iverson Bell Symposium inspires new initiative
Posted April 15, 2004
If the diverse group of practitioners and educators who attended the 20th annual Iverson Bell symposium had been a microcosm of the veterinary profession, the conference may not even have been held. Their diversity was clearly not representative of the U.S. veterinary profession and student body.
In previous years, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges has held the symposium in Washington, D.C. At the request of the Ohio VMA Diversity Task Force, this year's symposium was held in Columbus, Ohio, during the Midwest Veterinary Conference, so that more practitioners could attend. Pfizer Animal Health underwrote the symposium.
The Feb. 27 symposium breathed new life into the continuing theme—promoting diversity in veterinary colleges. As a result of the symposium, titled "A Town Hall Meeting on the State of Diversity in the Veterinary Profession," there is strong interest in having a program on diversity presented at AVMA annual conventions.
A group spearheaded by the OVMA Diversity Task Force has been formed to develop an outstanding inaugural program for the 2005 AVMA convention in Minneapolis in July, according to Dr. Bonnie Beaver, AVMA president-elect and a professor at Texas A&M University.
Dr. Beaver spoke at the symposium, and later commented, "The attempt to bring it to AVMA is to seek a larger audience and to sensitize a larger segment of our profession about diversity."
Some presenters at the Iverson Bell Symposium were enthusiastic about the potential outcomes of the symposium. "I'm fired up because of the symposium," said Dr. Ronald Dean Hodges of the Valley Central Veterinary Referral Center in Philadelphia.
Dr. Hodges, whose presentation included ways to recruit applicants and encourage minority veterinary candidates, said it is every veterinarian's duty to help recruit the next wave of applicants. Veterinarians can help by speaking at various organizations' career days, by visiting youth groups, and through active participation in their alumni associations. If the recruitment starts with a diverse cross section of the young, it will later translate into more diverse applicants, and ultimately, a more diverse environment in the work force, he said.
The lack of minority youth who are interested in veterinary careers was just one of many concerns expressed at the symposium. The environment within college programs designed to encourage diversity and talented students was another area addressed.
"When you find an environment that is conducive, you won't have to find (the applicants)—they will find you," said Dr. June Jones, director of employee relations at Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc.
Tuskegee University's College of Veterinary Medicine may have such an environment, because it graduates more than 60 percent of minority veterinary students, Dr. Hodges said.
In 2003, only 20.23 percent of U.S. veterinary college applicants were male, according to the American Medical College Application Service. A 1999 study conducted by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges found that only 2 percent were black, 3 percent were Asian, and 3.2 percent Hispanic. Those findings still parallel the situation today, Dr. Hodges said.
Attendees were ready to take steps to begin changing those statistics. "We all have a lot of work to do," said Charles Terrell, PhD, vice president of the Division of Community and Minority Programs for the Association of American Medical Colleges.
The annual Iverson Bell symposium, which is named after the only black veterinarian to serve as AVMA vice president, will help take the profession into the next era, said Dr. Evan Morse, chairman of the OVMA Diversity Task Force and coordinator of the symposium. A special guest, Iverson Bell Jr., MD, presented a lecture on the life and times of his father during the event.
Changing the minority underrepresentation problem is one that needs to be dealt with in society as well, Dr. Morse said. America should move away from the idea of a melting pot, where people give up their ethnic identities, and embrace the idea of a salad bowl, he said. To this end, people celebrate who they are and where they come from.
The day's discussions generated not only hope, but also, worry. Little change has been accomplished since the 1970s, said Dr. Lila Miller, ASPCA veterinary adviser and senior director of animal sciences for the ASPCA in New York. Dr. Miller was one of the first two black female graduates from Cornell University's veterinary college, class of 1977.
Dr. Lawrence Heider, executive director of AAVMC, said, "What we're talking about is systematic change—but we are not accomplishing it." The corporate world, along with the medical colleges, is struggling with racial representation goals, he added.
"Are we where we need to be with diversity in corporate America? Absolutely not," said James C. Trower, director of national accounts, Pfizer Companion Animal Division. "Creating an inclusive environment is one of our company's core leadership behaviors. By assisting with the sponsorship of events such as this, we hope to help the veterinary profession achieve its desired goals."
Those who expressed hope and those who conveyed concern agreed there would be no quick fix. Dr. Terrell presented the legal history of black oppression in America, which showed that many of their struggles followed a similarly arduous route.
Dr. Terrell captured H.L. Mencken's sentiment on the tedious nature of the work that lies ahead: For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
The change won't be an easy one; it's multigenerational, said Dr. Linda Randall, a practitioner from Westfield Center, Ohio.
The need for such change was also discussed in terms of the broader facets of American life. The June 23, 2003, University of Michigan v. Gratz and Hamacher/Gruder affirmative action lawsuit was a wakeup call for those who had become comfortable, Dr. Terrell said. Diversity must come from the top down, he said.
"Diversity is just not black-and-white," Trower said. "Diversity is male-female. Diversity is Asian, Hispanic. Diversity is left-handed people versus right-handed people, short people versus tall people."
What's going on right now is not only about race; it is about the profession and how we serve society, Dr. Heider said. Facing the diversity issue is essential now, and even more important as demographics change.
"As our U.S. population is changing," Dr. Beaver said, following the symposium, "it is important that our profession recognize those changes, and change in ways that we can best serve the public and their animals."
Though the diversity in the United States is far greater than within the veterinary profession, there is a more serious problem, Dr. Terrell said. The low numbers of minorities in higher-education programs such as veterinary medicine, in conjunction with Supreme Court cases such as the University of Michigan's affirmative action lawsuit, signify an underlying problem, he said.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education rebuked centuries of government-sanctioned black inferiority, in Dr. Terrell's view. And we wonder, he continued, why blacks and other people of color haven't achieved so many of the things that other immigrants have been able to achieve.
"June 23, 2003, was a great day. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the cloud in using affirmative action in admissions policies," Dr. Terrell said. "There was a great fear that we were going to be sued if we used affirmative action. There is no wonder that we experience difficulty in trying to diversify institutions."
This year, the symposium reached out to the greater veterinary community. Dr. Morse was especially pleased to see the increased number of practitioners. He added it is essential that everyone in attendance work toward changing academia and the profession as a whole.
For information on the AVMA diversity initiative, contact Dr. Morse at (216) 491-9333. The AAVMC will hold the next Iverson Bell Symposium from March 10-11, 2005, in Washington, D.C. Visit the AAVMC Web site, www.aavmc.org, or call (202) 371-9195.
Patrick Cain is a journalism student at The Ohio State University and also studies engineering.