The face of the veterinary profession

Educators wrestle with promoting racial diversity in the veterinary colleges
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For more than two decades, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges has hosted the Iverson Bell Symposium to consider ways of promoting racial diversity at U.S. veterinary schools and colleges. Educators value diversity as a tool for enriching students' educational experience while also preparing them to work with a variety of people.

But despite years of focusing on increasing racial diversity, the reality is that the number of underrepresented minorities at the 27 American veterinary colleges remains low, contrasting sharply with the racial makeup of the country.

According to the AAVMC, underrepresented minorities accounted for just 10 percent of veterinary college applicants in 1999—up from 7 percent in 1987. Moreover, of minority graduates receiving degrees in health profession programs between 1999 and 2000, the Department of Education states that just 14 percent earned a degree in veterinary medicine. A majority of minority graduates received degrees in human medicine, pharmacology, and dentistry.

"Obviously, if you look at the numbers, it's not good," Dr. Alfonza Atkinson, dean of the Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, observed about the state of minority enrollment at the veterinary colleges. Tuskegee graduates more than 60 percent of the minority veterinarians educated in this country, according to Dean Atkinson.

Dean Atkinson's assessment was typical among the veterinary college administrators, professors, recruiters, and students attending the Iverson Bell Symposium, March 6-7 in Washington, D.C.

According to Dr. Lawrence Heider, executive director of the AAVMC, much has been said about the need for a diverse student body but with little noticeable effect. "We raise awareness, but all you have to do is look at the statistics to know that we have not increased the enrollment of most underrepresented minorities, principally, black Americans," Dr. Heider said.

One of the primary concerns of those who attended the symposium was that a predominantly white profession cannot understand or adequately serve an increasingly diverse population. Relatedly, when bright, talented minorities are convinced that a career in veterinary medicine is not an option, whether that is treating animals or working for a pharmaceutical company, the profession itself is lesser for it.

"The importance of diversity speaks for itself," said Dr. Alan Cannedy, director of diversity and minority affairs at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "If you keep accepting and graduating one race or gender, then they're going to cater to what they're used to and comfortable with and happy being around."

"Diversity is going to be very important for the veterinary profession in the future because the demographics of the clientele are going to change significantly," Dean Atkinson added.

For several years, race has been a tinderbox of controversy for colleges. Dr. Andrew T. Maccabe, a veterinarian, lawyer, and director of programs and services at the AAVMC, explained during the symposium how the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard the high-profile case of Barbara Grutter suing the University of Michigan Law School for allegedly violating her rights.

When the school rejected her application, Grutter, who is white, claimed she had been discriminated against. Michigan's law school uses a point system as part of its admissions process. To foster a diverse student body, minority applicants are scored higher than white students during the process. A lower court ruled for Grutter, but it was overturned on appeal. Grutter then took her case to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April.

Dr. Maccabe noted that the Association of American Medical Colleges filed a brief supporting the University of Michigan policy, in which the AAMC stated that a diverse student body helps to create "culturally competent" physicians.

The AAMC's Charles Terrell, EdD, vice president of the division of community and minority programs, spoke during the Iverson Bell Symposium about the AAMC's efforts to promote racial diversity in the medical colleges. He highlighted the "Project 3000 by 2000" campaign. The AAMC started the project with the goal of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities applying to medical colleges from 1,501 in 1991 to 3,000 by the year 2000.

The campaign encouraged medical colleges to improve science education in K-12 schools or school systems with large minority enrollments and with colleges wanting to improve their curriculums to better equip minority students for medical college and other graduate health-care programs.

Ultimately, the project fell short of its goal, Dr. Terrell acknowledged, but minority enrollment did increase, with the high water mark occurring in 1994 with 2,026 underrepresented minority matriculants.

Clearly, minority recruitment is not only a problem for the veterinary profession. Yet data indicate veterinary medicine is less appealing to minorities than it is to whites. Why is this the case? Many reasons were offered at the symposium, although there is little evidence to support them.

Dr. Ronnie G. Elmore, associate dean for Academic Affairs and Admissions at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, discussed his research of the subject, which appeared in the Jan. 1, 2003, JAVMA, page 24.

On the basis of results of several surveys, Dr. Elmore suggested that minorities were less likely to pursue veterinary careers because of weaker attachments to pets, lack of exposure to veterinary medicine, few veterinary role models, and a preference for higher-paying careers in human medicine and pharmacology.

Dr. Elmore's article generated many letters to the editor and several minorities at the symposium took exception with his findings, saying the survey questions were biased and that the surveys did not delve deep enough into socioeconomic factors. Criticism was also directed at the AVMA for not collecting data about diversity in the veterinary profession.

Given her conversations with minority students, Dr. Jai Sweet, director of student services and multicultural affairs at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, said few minorities enter veterinary medicine, for several reasons. Guidance counselors and family members discourage prospective students from veterinary medicine because of low pay. For some, animals are not an important part of their lives. Still others attach a higher status to human medicine than to veterinary medicine.

In addition, Dr. Sweet wondered whether the lack of minority veterinarian role models discourages minorities from entering the profession, as Dr. Elmore mentioned.

Another cause, according to Drs. Heider and Cannedy, is the profession's failure to emphasize fields in veterinary medicine other than private practice. Too little attention is given to veterinarians working in biomedical research, public health, or the government. "Inadvertently, the profession has presented itself primarily as one of companion animal practitioners. I think we're going to have to show (minorities) that there's more to this profession, and I don't think we've done that well," Dr. Heider said.

Tuition and the availability of scholarships are also considerations for potential minority applicants. But Dean Atkinson believes the success of minority recruitment doesn't depend solely on scholarship money. Colleges must provide minority students with such resources as academic reinforcement programs and a nurturing environment. "It's very difficult to recruit an Afro-American student to an environment where the preponderance of the people in that environment don't look like they do," Dean Atkinson said.

Symposium participants concluded that the colleges must do more to recruit underrepresented minorities, with the AAVMC and AVMA placing greater emphasis on diversity within the profession. During the AAVMC's annual meeting following the symposium in March, the association passed a recommendation from the Multicultural Affairs Committee expressing the AAVMC's commitment to racial diversity.

Increasing minority enrollment at veterinary colleges will not happen overnight. It is difficult mobilizing the resources to recruit minorities at the middle and high school levels. Perhaps the greater challenge is the attempt itself to address racial disparities, since they can so quickly lead to accusations of reverse discrimination and to the courtroom. But the consensus among those attending the Iverson Bell Symposium was that action must be taken because if veterinarians hope to fully meet the needs of society, then they must look more like the people they serve.

"To fully serve the changing population of this country, we need a diverse work force," Dr. Heider said, adding, "We don't have it right now."