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April 15, 2020

Veterinary colleges continue to face diversity, inclusion challenges

Student government at ISU passes bill to censure veterinary college administration
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Despite efforts to create diverse and inclusive environments within the veterinary profession, including veterinary colleges, there is still room for progress. 

This fact became apparent during a student government meeting in February at Iowa State University, where veterinary students spoke about their experiences involving bias, microaggressions, bigotry, racism, and prejudice at the college or read transcripts from students who could not attend or feared speaking out. The student government passed a bill censuring the College of Veterinary Medicine administration.

Kate Alucard
Kate Alucard, a second-year student at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, is the ISU student government senator for the veterinary college. “When I first visited ISU CVM, I fell in love with the school. Now that I’ve become a member of the veterinary college, I realize that not everyone gets the luxury of feeling like they belong.” (Courtesy of Kate Alucard)

Read the bill, Senate Resolution 2019-3-011 SR, titled “Censuring the College of Veterinary Medicine Administration,” (PDF) in its entirety.

Dr. Dan Grooms, dean of the veterinary college, said the administration is aware of the issues and has been working on them.

“There is no doubt that what they (the students) have experienced is hurtful to them,” he said. “We are working hard to make sure our students have positive experiences. We want to make the college a more inclusive and welcoming environment for learning and working.”

He added that many of the resolutions’ recommendations are already being implemented or had already been implemented; however, some will need to be discussed more broadly with the university.

“It’s a continuous process, and it will always take work,” Dr. Grooms said.

There have been five reported incidents in the 2019-20 academic year, he said, and all the incidents have been investigated and, when a response could be made, responded to.

Greater efforts

The effort to increase diversity and inclusion on veterinary college campuses has largely been led by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. The organization launched its DiVersity Matters initiative in 2005, in part because of the lack of diversity within the profession. According to the 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report “Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity,” 92.9% of veterinarians in the workforce were white—a decrease of 4.4 percentage points from five years earlier.

A study analyzing the climate at veterinary colleges published in 2018 by the AAVMC shows one in three students reported hearing comments from fellow students related to race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or other demographic characteristics.

Lisa Greenhill, EdD, senior director for institutional research and diversity at the AAVMC, has been at the forefront of this initiative.

“While censure is often interpreted as a stinging rebuke, we can also look at this as a great opportunity for ISU to explore ways to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the college community,” Dr. Greenhill said. “AAVMC has a long history of working with its member institutions in a variety of ways, including sharing research and offering training, program development coaching, and evaluation.

“So while it is genuinely awful that students are feeling marginalized, discriminated against, and unheard, the action taken by the student senate creates a unique chance for us to support ISU in being a welcoming and supportive environment where all students, faculty, and staff can thrive.”

ISU isn’t alone. Veterinary students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico are protesting the reelection of Dr. Francisco Suarez Guemes, veterinary school director, because of, among other things, complaints related to his mishandling of sexual harassment as well as security issues and gender violence, according to media reports.

Bigger picture

But the problems aren’t just at institutions of higher education, said Sonya G. Smith, EdD, chief diversity officer at the American Dental Education Association. Dr. Smith spoke during a session at the AAVMC annual conference in March, “When Hate is a Crime: Creating an Inclusive and Safe Environment on Campus.”

“Higher education functions and exists within society, and the U.S. continues to wrestle with how to better ensure fairness, equity, belongingness, diversity, and inclusion in all our systems and in everyday interactions,” she told JAVMA News. “Colleges must see these challenges as opportunities and not as something that they have to deal with to pacify students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

Smith suggests that colleges make changes through strategic planning, allocation of resources, curriculum development, hiring policies, and recruitment and retention practices.

Smith said acknowledging bias is important, and everyone has it.

“It is not about being a good or bad person,” she said. “However, in our discussions, we must move from intent to impact. Although a person may not intend to be hurtful or discriminatory in their actions, self-reflection and the principles of organizational behavior require that we continue to ask, ‘What was the impact on the other person, this group, the organization, and even oneself?’”

For the ISU veterinary students who spoke up, the hope is that the bill will facilitate more action from leadership.

Kate Alucard, the ISU student government senator for the veterinary college, said, “I would like to acknowledge the efforts made by the veterinary college administration since the censure and even before then. It was said by one senior faculty member that inclusion and diversity has improved more under Dr. Groom’s leadership as the dean than any other dean in the past twenty years.

“However, we can sit and acknowledge the progress that has been made and still demand better for our students. Students are powerful. We can demand change and accountability. We shouldn’t settle for tolerance. I proudly stand with my peers that have come forward on these issues. They are fearless, they are brave, and they are the future professionals in the veterinary profession, all over the world.”


How to better implement diversity and inclusion efforts

Sonya G. Smith, EdD, chief diversity officer at the American Dental Education Association, held a session during the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ annual conference, “When Hate is a Crime: Creating an Inclusive and Safe Environment on Campus.” She gave JAVMA News the following tips for veterinary colleges to consider:

  • Demonstrate that diversity is a driving and necessary condition for academic and clinical excellence.
  • See cultural competency as a continuum by making sure that admissions and hiring committees receive cultural competency training and ongoing implicit bias and cognitive error training.
  • Evaluate and ensure that diverse voices are heard consistently at all levels.
  • Implement climate surveys with transparent and actionable discussions around findings and monitor solutions.
  • Conduct a curriculum audit to determine whether principles of diversity, health equity, and inclusion are embedded throughout.
  • Develop a diversity plan through which students, faculty, and staff come together to be a collective part of the solution.
  • Be proactive in bringing about transformational change. Either you drive change or change will drive you.