May 15, 2005


 Looking like America

Symposium targets lack of diversity in veterinary profession

Posted May 1, 2005

Dr. Phillip D. NelsonWith demographic trends shifting toward an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse country, veterinary institutions are trying to understand why the students they accept and graduate are looking less and less like America. Data indicate that veterinary medicine in the United States is fast on its way to becoming a profession overwhelmingly of white women.

Concerns about how a mostly homogenous profession will affect the practice of veterinary medicine are no longer a mere academic matter. Last November, members of the AVMA Executive Board adopted a position statement in which the Association committed itself "to diversity in all aspects of the profession so that we can best serve the animals and public."

Several high-ranking AVMA officials followed up by attending the 15th Iverson Bell Symposium in Washington, D.C., March 10-11, including Executive Board chair, Dr. Roger K. Mahr. Then in April, the AVMA board established a task force examining diversity issues within veterinary medicine (see story, page 1626).

Hosted by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the symposium is named for the late Dr. Iverson Bell, whose aim was to attract minorities to veterinary medicine. Thirty-two deans, associate deans, and assistant deans attended the latest meeting, along with a host of admissions officers, professors, and students, as well as government and industry representatives.

The AAVMC stepped up its diversity promotion campaign last September with the hiring of Lisa M. Greenhill as its diversity director. Additionally, the association presented a white paper at the symposium outlining several steps to promote diversity within the nation's 28 accredited veterinary schools and colleges.

According to the AAVMC paper, current enrollment of underrepresented minorities hovers just below 10 percent of total student enrollment in U.S. veterinary schools and colleges. Moreover, data reveal a downturn in the percentage of minority students matriculating at veterinary colleges for the first time since 1988.

Although the lack of diversity is widespread throughout all health professions, the AAVMC paper notes that it "is especially acute in veterinary medical colleges."

Dr. Phillip D. Nelson, executive associate dean of preclinical programs at Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine, described just how homogenous the current crop of veterinary students is. Some 91 percent of them are white, 5 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are African-American, 1 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders, and less than 1 percent are American Indian.

This description, when compared with demographic projections for the next several decades, reveals a profession very much out of step with society in terms of its racial and ethnic makeup.

For instance, Hispanic and Asian populations are growing faster than the U.S. population as a whole and are expected to triple in size during the next half century. The nation's African-American population is projected to grow by 71 percent by 2050, whereas non-Hispanic whites will likely decrease and represent about half the nation's total population by 2050.

Is diversity necessary for the delivery of quality veterinary services? The overriding concern among those attending the Iverson Bell Symposium is that a predominantly white profession cannot understand or properly serve an increasingly diversified population. Moreover, society suffers when bright, talented individuals are not part of the veterinary profession.

Veterinary studentsThese worries are echoed in the AAVMC white paper, which concludes that the "future needs of the profession draw dramatic attention to the profession's inability to produce a racially and ethically diverse work force."

Veterinary medicine, like all professions, will have to adapt to these realities. Otherwise, it risks becoming irrelevant to a large segment of society by failing to meet their needs. Diversity, as Dr. Nelson pointed out, is not simply a noble cause but also makes good business sense.

It's not just academia embracing diversity. It is a fundamental principle of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, according to its director, Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof. "The public sector recognizes the need for a diverse work force because exclusion of any group means missed opportunities and underutilized resources," he said.

To that end, the CVM has a longstanding policy of supporting a work environment free from employment discrimination while also ensuring the "attainment of diversity at all levels of responsibility, in all occupations, and through all career opportunities" at the agency, Dr. Sundlof explained.

Why are so few minorities attracted to careers in veterinary medicine? A definitive answer is elusive, given the paucity of data on the subject. One reasonable explanation is the competition among all health professions to attract qualified candidates, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. Low starting salaries, high student debt, and the perception that a job in human medicine is more prestigious can dissuade qualified minorities from the veterinary path.

There is also the short supply of veterinary role models. In addition to the dearth of minority veterinarians in the private and public sectors, few minorities are employed in veterinary academia. Of the approximately 2,600 teaching faculty at U.S. veterinary colleges, fewer than 500 are minorities, according to Greenhill of the AAVMC.

Relatedly, young minorities typically have limited, if any, exposure to veterinarians of their same race or ethnicity. At the symposium, a panel of prehealth program advisers from mostly minority colleges noted the failure of veterinary institutions to aggressively recruit their students. Michael Ellison, an adviser with Chicago State University, offered a reason why few minority students consider joining the ranks of veterinary medicine: "How do I become something I have never seen?"

The white paper introduced by the AAVMC at the symposium is the association's plan for diversifying the nation's veterinary institutions.

The goals are getting veterinary school applicant and enrollment numbers to mirror the U.S. population demographic; fostering a welcoming environment for students and faculty of all racial and ethnic backgrounds; eliminating unnecessary and cumbersome barriers to success in academic veterinary medicine; and promoting veterinary medicine as a profession that is diverse, with professional opportunities available to the diverse population it serves.

To make these a reality, the plan details several key steps for every veterinary college to take. For example, a multicultural affairs committee complemented by a dean's diversity advisory group must be instituted. Admissions policies and practices promoting a diverse learning environment should be adopted. Expanded opportunities for high school and college students to participate in summer enrichment and exposure programs must be created.

Additionally, relationships with minority secondary and postsecondary schools should be developed. Data on underrepresented minority applicants, students, faculty, and staff regarding application, admittance, success rates, and tenure-track positions need to be collected. And an endowment providing financial support for underrepresented minority students attending veterinary school should be started.

Greenhill stressed that the goals are achievable with funding and additional support from various sources, such as government, industry, and the veterinary profession itself.

Proceedings from the Iverson Bell Symposium are available on the AAVMC Web site .