The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges continued its work to promote the benefits of—and offer blueprints on how to create—a more diverse and inclusive population within veterinary colleges during its Annual Conference and Iverson Bell Symposium, held March 8-10 in Washington, D.C.
Several sessions homed in on the best practices and strategies to build diverse teams and on how to identify unconscious bias, foster honest dialogue, and enhance the admissions process to consider diversity earlier in the process. The theme of the meeting was "The Science of Building Inclusive Teams."
Lisa Greenhill, EdD, senior director of institutional research and diversity at AAVMC, has seen the discussion shift during her 20 years working with veterinary academics, she said in an interview with JAVMA News.
"The conversation has changed dramatically. Years ago, issues around cultural competency, privilege, and microaggressions would be far more controversial. Now, if we have provocative speakers, people are more engaged, willing to listen, and they know there is a direct impact on the student, faculty, and staff experience."
The changing landscape
Dr. Greenhill said, during the AAVMC session "Critical Dialogues about Espoused Values and Alignment of Artifacts to Build Inclusive Teams in Veterinary Medicine," that the conversation can always go further. She spoke about the idea of shared values to drive team development.
"Organizational values drive organizational behavior. Our policies, practices, and procedures make us believe organizational behavior is entirely rational, when really they are a reflection of our values. When your values are clear, your decisions become clear," Dr. Greenhill said.
She suggested some of the following questions for organizations to consider when thinking about values:
Are diversity and inclusion stated in the mission and vision?
Are diversity and inclusion a permanent component of strategic planning efforts?
Are leaders, volunteers, and new staff expected to complete diversity and inclusion training and professional development as a part of onboarding or promotion?
Are leadership activities designed to cultivate a more diverse pool of potential leaders?
Increasingly, veterinary colleges have recognized the need for diversity to be woven into their culture and values.
Dr. Greenhill said during her interview with JAVMA News, "More than ever, colleges have someone whose designated job is to focus on (diversity and inclusion) and how it impacts the college environment."
While the conversations may be shifting, the reason and need for diversity should always be percolating, according to Scott E. Page, PhD, author and professor of complex systems, political science, and economics at the University of Michigan.
"Why we want to be inclusive and promote diversity is (because) we are actually going to get better outcomes (on complex problems)," Dr. Page said during a plenary session. "When you are solving complex problems and dealing with complex issues, diversity gives you bonuses."
Dr. Page does research on how diversity improves performance and decision-making.
He recommended several questions to ask in order to measure diversity, such as: Whom are we hiring? How are we rating people on performance? Whom are we promoting? How are we paying people? Who is winning awards? To whom am I sending emails? Are people comfortable at work? What things do we want to accomplish, and can we get the right people in the room to accomplish them?
Diversity may be a consideration for faculty and administrators, but veterinary students are also keen to have their voices heard.
"The conversation about diversity in veterinary medicine is important," said Jeremy Coleman, a student in the Western University of Health Sciences Class of 2023, who is black. "You are going to have clients not only that look like you, but clients who look like all of us. You have to be able to talk to everyone, and how are you going to learn that if your classmates don't look like that?"
Administrators and faculty need to listen to what students have to say around this topic and others, he said.
"You picked us to be in your veterinary program, and we have something to contribute to the conversation. We have real concerns, real ideas, and we can bring something really informative to the table," Coleman said.
The starting line
In the session "Competency Based Admissions," Dr. Jacquelyn Pelzer, director of admissions and student support at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, discussed two kinds of admissions: holistic review and competency-based admission.
Holistic review is a way of assessing an applicant's capabilities through balanced consideration of experiences, attributes, and academic metrics as well as nonstandardized information, Dr. Pelzer said. Competency-based admission evaluates an applicant's ability to demonstrate a core set of entry-level competencies needed to be successful in a program and subsequent professional life.
Diversity within the student community at Virginia-Maryland, assessed on the basis of ethnicity, race, gender, and socioeconomic status, has increased from 7 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2018, according to Dr. Pelzer. Virginia-Maryland uses the holistic review process.
"If we are not considering diversity from the beginning and we value diversity, we need to think differently," she said. "We are all passionate about doing the right thing, but we compromise time and time again to get the job done with fewer resources and larger applicant pools. We can only meet those challenges of diversifying our student communities through the honest reflection of our practices and learning to dance with those tensions."
Dr. Pelzer reported several items Virginia-Maryland focused on to build diversity into its admission process, such as updating its mission statement to include diversity and inclusion, training admissions committee members and interviewers on that mission and its relation to diversity, and implementing a multiple mini-interview format to assess nonacademic attributes.
"We should have the courage to address the hidden aspect of privilege within our admissions practices and embrace the value of multiple excellences other than hanging on to our historic perceptions of what merit and excellence looks like," Dr. Pelzer said.
Dr. Pelzer mentioned that most veterinary colleges use a form of holistic review, and while Virginia-Maryland has had luck with the process, the veterinary college is in the process of moving to a competency-based system.
The reason for the change can be partially attributed to a lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, that could change the approach to race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions. The suit claims that Harvard University, which uses a holistic review process, discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The suit is likely to go to the Supreme Court.
In addition, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, which includes the proposed School of Veterinary Medicine, has agreed to end its consideration of race and national origin in admissions. The change comes after the center came to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office on Civil Rights earlier this year, according to news reports. The office had conducted a 14-year probe into the use of affirmative action in admissions policies at the School of Medicine.
'I' is for inclusive
The AVMA Council on Education, which accredits veterinary colleges, took steps to better incorporate and highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion by revising several of its accreditation standards in March 2017. Standard 9 (Curriculum) now states that there should be opportunities for students to gain and integrate an understanding of the important influences of diversity and inclusion in veterinary medicine, including the impact of implicit bias. Standard 7 (Admissions) now states that student recruitment and admission practices must be nondiscriminatory.
"(Diversity and inclusion are) not an elective. This is core material, it should be core material. This is not a soft skill. This is one of the success metrics for our graduates," said Dr. Kenita S. Rogers, executive associate dean and director of diversity and inclusion at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. Dr. Rogers was awarded this year's Iverson Bell Award for her contributions to advancing inclusion and diversity (seestory).
"We cannot afford for our students not to be able to work across the aisle, to work with others, to recognize difference, to embrace difference, and do a great job with difference," she said.
For Dr. Rebecca Stinson, associate director of student support and admissions at Virginia-Maryland, a strong and diverse team includes several attributes: a sense of community, cultural competency, and civility, respect, and engagement.
Cultural competence is best described as understanding the effects of bias on decision-making and developing a strategy to deal with the issues that may arise from that bias, Dr. Stinson said during the "Creating Collaborative and Inclusive Teams" session.
At the conference, the overarching drive for attendees seemed to be not only learning strategies for creating diversity within the veterinary field but also finding ways to keep potential veterinarians engaged and thriving.
Dr. Greenhill said, "We want to create future professionals who will be at their best, and if they're fending off a bunch of nonsense in the classroom or the larger academic environment, that's not going to produce what we are committed to producing."