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August 15, 2020

Veterinary colleges committed to anti-racism, say Black lives matter

Task forces created, diversity manager hired, and more action pledged
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Greater recognition of systemic racism and calls for social justice have come in the wake of the most recent killings of Black individuals by police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the resulting protests. And a growing number of white people are becoming aware of how they may have benefited from a system built on racial inequities.

ISU collective kneel in support of White Coats for Black Lives
Dr. Jennifer Scaccianoce, a clinical assistant professor at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, organized a collective kneel in support of White Coats for Black Lives, a national campaign to dismantle racism in medicine and promote the health, well-being, and self-determination of people of color. (Photo by Dave Gieseke/ISU)

How to increase diversity within the veterinary profession has been an ongoing conversation for many years. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges created its DiVersity Matters initiative in 2005, the same year the AVMA created a Task Force on Diversity (see story).

In the past 15 years, the number of underrepresented minority students enrolled in veterinary college has increased by over 11 percentage points, according to public data from the AAVMC, but 80% of the veterinary student population is white.

Dr. Andrew T. Maccabe, CEO of the AAVMC, said now is the time for more action.

“It is far too easy for us to say civil rights and social justice are for lawyers and social workers, but that’s not right,“ he said. These things require every sector of society. We need to figure out what our role as veterinarians is. … This is an uncomfortable conversation and discussion for a lot of people, and that’s OK. It is OK to be uncomfortable. Some people have been uncomfortable for a long time, and I think it is OK if everyone else is uncomfortable, too.”

Dr. Maccabe said the next step is figuring out how to incorporate these concepts into the veterinary curriculum and everyday activities.

JAVMA News spoke with leaders in veterinary academia about the Black Lives Matter movement and what it means for the future of veterinary education. Many veterinary colleges have released statements standing with the movement and the Black community and started book clubs to discuss anti-racism. Some are discussing how they plan to take further action.

Dr. Allen Cannedy, director for diversity and multicultural affairs at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said the veterinary college is working to be a leader in this space. In recognition of Juneteenth, the veterinary college said it would match donations for a month to the Dr. Tracy Hanner Endowed Scholarship, which supports underrepresented minority veterinary students at the veterinary college.

“We have done a lot, but we still have a long way to go,” he said. “With diversity and inclusion comes the challenges of making sure that all groups are appropriately supported. A big part of my job is being the support person who makes sure that diversity and inclusion issues are dealt with when they happen. We aim to prevent problems by educating our community and try to hold people accountable for their actions.”

Finally making changes

Dr. Mark Markel, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said he has always been passionate about diversity, inclusion, and equity. However, he realized last year his institution needed to hire a dedicated person.

Richard Barajas will start in September as the UW veterinary school’s diversity and inclusion manager.

In addition, Dr. Markel said he is having conversations with students who are Black, Indigenous, and from other underrepresented racial and ethnic groups to understand how to better serve them.

Despite many veterinary colleges having specific diversity and inclusion policies, others are newly coming to this work.

Dr. Robert Mealey, interim dean at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said the veterinary college has formed a working group.

“This has been an issue for a very long time, and I have no excuse why it has taken so long to see that we need to be more organized,” Dr. Mealey said. “We are going to do better, and we are committed to doing it.”

Dr. Dori Borjesson, the new dean of the veterinary college, started in July and will continue leading this effort. Dr. Mealey transitioned into a position as chair of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences but said he will continue to stay engaged.

“This is an issue for me. I am a middle-aged white guy, and I grew up in white communities. I live in a mostly white town, and WSU is a mostly white college,” Dr. Mealey said. “I’ve got to do better and do what I can to end systemic racism. For us, as a college, we are not very diverse in Pullman (Washington). We are starting from the beginning here. We need to assess where we are and work on understanding.”

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University is also committed to creating more initiatives that build on its already-established diversity and inclusion programs and actively opposing any expression of racism in the school community.

Dr. Alastair E. Cribb, dean of the veterinary school, said, “In addition to fostering a dialogue on these issues through communitywide forums and learning programs for faculty, staff, and students, Cummings School has established an anti-racism task force to address racism, especially against Black members of our community, in all facets of Cummings School, from classrooms to clinics.”

The veterinary school appointed Dr. Flo Tseng as assistant dean for diversity, inclusion, equity, and climate in February. Dr. Tseng will chair the anti-racism task force, which will include faculty members, staff members, and students. These efforts are a part of a larger universitywide effort to address systemic racism.

WSU Black Lives Matter marchers
Black Lives Matter marchers started on the Washington State University campus and ended in downtown Pullman, Washington, on June 12, 2020. Participating in the march were various WSU faculty, including Dr. Robert Mealey, interim dean of the veterinary college. (Photo by Dean Hare/WSU Photo Services)

Ask for help

Dr. Cannedy, who has led diversity and multicultural affairs for the NCSU veterinary college since 2004, said, “Those institutions that are just beginning to initiate diversity and inclusion plans should reach out for guidance.

“You don’t have to be that creative anymore. You can just ask for help,” he said. “Those places wanting to make change need to be sincere, intentional, and ready to invest for the long haul. There must be strong support for those leading the charge for the battles that happen with this type of work. And that’s why not many people and places have done it.”

Purdue University, through its Center of Excellence for Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine, is also willing to be a resource. Its online professional certificate program has been running since 2013 and has seen steady interest over time. But, most recently, Purdue has seen a significant uptick, said Adrianne Fisch, program manager for the Office of Engagement in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

The certificate is self-paced and includes 12 modules as well as activities for participants. However, Fisch said, Purdue is updating it to include more-targeted information, interactive opportunities, and skill building. The updated program will likely be available next year.

Students, faculty members stand up

The Student AVMA released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in June.

“We see you. We hear you. We support you. We stand in unity and solidarity with our Black communities and all communities of color in the fight for social justice,” according to the statement. “As an organization focused on creating lasting change and a better environment for our veterinary students through social impact, we stand for inclusion and against racism.”

It isn’t just students speaking up. Staff and faculty members have also started taking initiative in this area.

Dr. Jennifer Scaccianoce, a clinical assistant professor at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, organized a collective kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds—the length of time Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on George Floyd’s neck before Floyd died.

The event was in support of White Coats for Black Lives, a national campaign to dismantle racism in medicine and promote the health, well-being, and self-determination of people of color. Dr. Scaccianoce said since the event, there have been a lot of discussions and self-reflecting.

Earlier this year, veterinary students at ISU shared experiences related to bias, racism, and bigotry on campus during a student government meeting, and student senators passed a bill to censure the veterinary college administration in response.

Kate Alucard, a third-year veterinary student and the student senator for the veterinary college, said she has noticed an increase in engagement from staff and faculty members since then.

“In the wake of COVID-19, we have not had face-to-face meetings, but the administration has maintained communication with us,” Alucard said.

The veterinary college has since put resources on its website, started a book club dedicated to diverse books by diverse authors, worked to include students, and increased participation in universitywide movements.

Alucard said she has received requests from students around the world for tips on how to confront leaders about issues related to bigotry and injustice.

“That to me is a clear sign veterinary medicine is not immune to these systemic injustices, and it is not just an Iowa State problem,” she said. “The world is paying attention to how we spring to action. We must make it very clear we are on the right side of history and in support of dismantling a system of white supremacy and systemic oppression, be it both inside and outside of veterinary medicine.”

Alucard said students interested in having a conversation about how to discuss diversity and inclusion with the administration at their veterinary college can kalucardatiastate [dot] edu (reach out to her).

What’s next?

Moving forward, Dr. Maccabe said his focus will be on outreach, specifically building relationships with historically black colleges and universities as well as institutions serving Latino and Indigenous people. A number of HBCUs in the U.S. offer veterinary- or animal-related undergraduate degrees.

Some veterinary colleges have already taken a step in this direction. The University of Prince Edward Island Atlantic Veterinary College recently announced it had been awarded nearly $30,000 for a project to engage Indigenous youth in veterinary medicine and science, technology, engineering and math.

“We should have relationships with these institutions so we can develop mentoring and pipelines,” Dr. Maccabe said.

Additionally, Dr. Markel, who is president of the AAVMC, noted the AAVMC conference in spring 2021 will include the Iverson Bell Symposium, which will celebrate its 22nd occurrence. The primary goal of the symposium is to promote diversity and inclusion in academic veterinary medicine. There are conversations about having a specific veterinary symposium on racial justice issues as well.

In addition, Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine is hosting the 2020 Virtual Western Regional Iverson Bell Summit, Oct. 23-25. The theme of the summit is “Triple A (Access, Ability and Allyship): Your Map to Wellness, Diversity, and Inclusion.”

In the meantime, Dr. Cannedy said he hopes to see more action.

“Our community wants to see action. People of color have been begging for fairness and respect far too long. We deserve to be treated the way we want to be treated,” he said. “Talk is cheap, but taking action isn’t. I challenge our colleagues in the veterinary profession and my AVMA to do something that is impactful and sustainable to address racism.”


The AAVMC has a dedicated resource page for organizational assessment tools and a recent episode of the AAVMC “Diversity and Inclusion on Air” podcast focused on the Black Lives Matter movement.