May 01, 2015


 AAVMC continues to move the needle on diversity

More work needed on admissions, campus climate, speakers say

Posted April 16, 2015

Ten years ago, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges launched its DiVersity Matters initiative, which seeks to increase diversity at U.S. veterinary colleges. At the time, Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC associate executive director for institutional research and diversity, who has a doctorate in education, said that for these institutions to be responsive to the changing face of the U.S. population, they must both individually and collectively grow an applicant pool and an enrollment that mirror population demographics (J Vet Med Educ 2007;34:43-46).

Looking at today’s figures, it appears the situation has changed for the better in some ways but not all. The number of historically underrepresented students at U.S. veterinary colleges has increased from 951, or 9.7 percent of the total students enrolled, in 2005 to 1,810, or 14.6 percent, in 2015, according to AAVMC data.

However, the makeup of the veterinary applicant pool hasn’t changed much in the past five years. During that period, 77 percent of applicants were female, with a mean age of 21 years. Additionally, of those who responded to the AAVMC annual applicant survey in the past five years and identified with at least one race, 72 percent were Caucasian.

Speakers at the AAVMC’s Annual Conference, held March 13-15 in Washington, D.C., discussed strategies for attracting diverse students to veterinary medicine and what institutions are doing to enhance cultural awareness and competence. The theme was “Recruiting and Selecting for the Future of Veterinary Medicine,” but the topic of diversity and inclusion carried throughout the conference, which was held in conjunction with the 20th Iverson Bell Symposium—the oldest and largest diversity-themed event in the profession.

Dr. Roseanne Taylor, dean of the University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science; Dr. Elizabeth Stone, dean of Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph; Dr. Grace Mulcahy, dean of the University College Dublin School of Veterinary Medicine; and Lisa Greenhill, EdD, associate executive director for institutional research and diversity for the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, discuss how increasing diversity in veterinary education is an international concern. The panel took place March 13-15 in Washington, D.C., at the AAVMC’s Annual Conference, held concurrently with the 20th Iverson Bell Symposium. (Courtesy of AAVMC)

Determining who is qualified 

In their talk “Who Are We Selecting and What Are the Outcomes?” Drs. Jacque Pelzer and Jennifer Hodgson, administrators at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, argued that current admissions practices, not necessarily the applicant pool, may impede the ability to influence change in the makeup of the profession. 

They referenced a recent study (Med Educ 2015;49:36-47) in which the authors looked at why entry into medical school remains highly competitive and exclusive of underprivileged groups, taking a focused look at potential internal barriers.

Specifically, the authors wanted to know what implicit and explicit messages were being sent about the medical profession valuing the concepts of excellence, diversity, and equity and how they were being transmitted, internalized, and constructed.

The authors found that the focus of admissions was on academic excellence and not on creating diversity within medical classes. They also found that medical schools defined diversity as a quantifiable, superficially observable commodity. Dr. Hodgson said while the authors recognized the importance of academics, they believed that institutions’ major focus on achieving academically came at the expense of recognizing medicine’s other roles in society.

In addition, the schools rarely if ever recognized deep or hidden forms of diversity, such as an individual’s ways of thinking or seeing the world, which might result from the intersections of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and the like.

Finally, the authors found that equity was a concept vaguely defined on most institutions’ websites and that there was incomplete articulation of the schools’ perceived obligations to the societies or communities in which they were located. As a result, tension was apparent between academic excellence and the profession’s mandate of service to society, whereas frequently these two are conflated.

Drs. Pelzer and Hodgson believe the same tensions exist within veterinary admissions processes. To address this concern, they recommend veterinary colleges look at their websites and reflect on the messages that they send.

“Many of us portray a diverse student class through the images on our websites. While we are not saying we should never use these images, as they may encourage more diverse applicants, this cannot be regarded as a box we have ticked or be an inaccurate representation of our student body, rather than a true commitment to diversity,” Dr. Hodgson said.

Another suggestion was to train admissions committee members to embrace inclusive definitions of excellence. This process might also help them resolve the tensions between academic excellence and other attributes in applicants the veterinary college values.

Climate survey results

When it comes to current students, veterinary colleges have been placing a greater emphasis on developing and implementing curriculum interventions that enhance cultural awareness and competence within the institution as well as in clinical practice settings when working with diverse populations. Just a few of the overarching diversity and inclusion initiatives that have been created in the past 10 years are the following:

  • Purdue University began offering online certificate programs in diversity and inclusion for veterinarians, veterinary technicians, educators, and students through the Center of Excellence for Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine. Purdue developed the center in partnership with the AVMA and the AAVMC in 2014.
  • Veterinary colleges have implemented multicultural scholars programs, thanks to grants offered by the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
  • Regional Iverson Bell symposiums have taken place in the Midwest and Southeast.
  • Student-run groups such as the Broad Spectrum Veterinary Student Association, which focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, and Veterinary Students as One in Culture and Ethnicity were created.

So far, it seems these efforts have helped foster more-inclusive environments at the U.S. veterinary colleges. A 2011 study that assessed campus climate with respect to diversity at each college suggested that the overall climate in relation to diversity is positive and supportive (J Vet Med Educ 2014;41:111-121).

However, the survey also revealed that veterinary students within minority groups express feelings of discrimination and lower acceptance. These groups include minorities underrepresented in veterinary medicine and LGBT populations.

The survey found nearly one-third of racially or ethnically URVM students reported hearing racist comments from their student colleagues occasionally to very frequently. Over 20 percent of LGBT students reported hearing homophobic comments from students occasionally to very frequently. Students were more likely than college faculty and staff to make comments about race and sexuality. 

Many of us portray a diverse student class through the images on our websites. While we are not saying we should never use these images, as they may encourage more diverse applicants, this cannot be regarded as a box we have ticked or be an inaccurate representation of our student body, rather than a true commitment to diversity.”
Dr. Jennifer L. Hodgson, associate dean
for  professional programs,
Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine



The survey also revealed that veterinary students were more likely to experience negative diversity-related experiences at the hands of their student peers than from any other group on campus. The second highest incidence of sexist comments came from faculty. Just over 21 percent of female students and 23 percent of transgender students said that they heard faculty making sexist comments occasionally to very frequently.

“The differing perceived level of institutional support for URVM students between students of color and their white counterparts was found to be statistically significant, indicating that while white students felt that there was adequate support for URVM students, students of color did not feel that the same amount of adequacy was present. This finding is consistent with previous studies on perceptions of climate and institutional support in which white students routinely rate institutions as more welcoming and accepting than their underrepresented student counterparts,” wrote the study’s authors, Drs. Greenhill and K. Paige Carmichael, professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

Drs. Carmichael and Greenhill, along with Dr. Sandra San Miguel, associate dean for engagement at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, discussed at the conference how the perception that a veterinary college is nonsupportive to underrepresented populations could affect its success in recruiting and retaining these students. They say mechanisms that can be used to enhance the perception of a supportive environment could lead to more effective recruitment. These include pipeline building, formal student-mentor pairing, further integration of cultural competence into the curriculum, and communicating clear paths for reporting bullying or harassing behavior.

Dr. Carmichael received this year’s Iverson Bell Award for her contributions to advancing inclusion and diversity in academic veterinary medicine).

The conference’s program is available here.  

Related JAVMA content:

Dialogue about diversity reveals tensions (May 1, 2013)

Study on campus climate at veterinary schools in the works (Aug. 1, 2010)

Efforts being sustained to promote diversity (July 15, 2010)

AAVMC trying to increase appeal of veterinary medicine to minority students (Oct. 1, 2008)