Students petition Medical School to reinstate diversity office

The Perelman Medical School announced restructured diversity and inclusion activities plan on Tuesday

· June 27, 2012, 9:53 am   ·  Updated June 29, 2012, 10:33 pm

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Amid protests in a student-led petition, the Perelman School of Medicine announced its new plan for promoting diversity on Tuesday.

The online petition — which has received over 800 signatures from students, faculty and other supporters — criticizes the Medical School administration for eliminating the Office for Diversity and Community Outreach. Perelman for Diversity, a student group that formed in mid-June in response to this decision, also formally submitted a letter to the administration on June 25.

The next day, Senior Vice Dean for Education Gail Morrison issued a letter to all medical school students outlining the Medical School’s plans to restructure its diversity and inclusion programs.

She announced that intensive care specialist Horace Delisser had been appointed to the new position of Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion within the Academic Programs Office, and emergency room physician Iris Reyes had been named Associate Dean for Student Community Outreach. In addition, Morrison stated that a new faculty Council on Diversity and Inclusion, headed by Neurology professor Roy Hamilton and Psychiatry professor Benoit Dube, would begin working with the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid and the Office of Student Affairs starting July 1.

In the letter, Morrison also wrote that Karen Hamilton and Hilda Luiggi — who worked in ODCO for a combined 30 years — would be stepping down from their positions.

A tradition of support

Founded in 1968 as the Office for Minority Affairs, the ODCO was the first minority support office in the country. Responsible for minority student recruitment and retention as well as mentoring programs for college, medical and high school students, Hamilton and Luiggi also provided advising and support to all minority student groups within the Medical School.

In the petition, students wrote that this move would “negatively affect the generations that follow” because for many, the “warm and welcoming environment uniquely provided by these individuals [was a] major contributing factor in their decisions to attend Perelman.” The students also felt the manner in which Hamilton and Luiggi’s departure was announced was “without explanation and with only a month’s notice before the ODCO’s planned dissolution.”

According to a Medical School student who wished to remain anonymous because she is involved with the petition, news of ODCO’s elimination reached some minority student groups in mid-June. On June 20, the Medical School Government notified student group leaders of a meeting with Morrison on July 3 to give feedback on the decision.

Medical School spokesperson Susan Phillips explained that Hamilton and Luiggi are not physicians, and that Reyes and Delisser — who are both active clinicians — would be “a significant advantage for students that need support in their career at Penn.”

Morrison’s letter also cited alignment with national models as another reason behind the reorganization. These models have “diversity inclusion more integrated with regular admissions process and student recruitment,” according to Phillips.

“I think this broadens everyone’s ability to focus on these issues,” she said. “The current programs are going to be supported as new ideas come forward … what the reorganization does is provide additional resources for students.”

Phillips added that the Medical School — which launched its Plan for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion in November 2011 — is also recruiting for the position of Vice Dean for Diversity, who will report to Medical School Dean J. Larry Jameson.

A community-wide response

Hasan Amenra, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education, said he was “dumbfounded” at the decision to close the ODCO, which prompted him to sign the petition. He said he knew of no other mechanisms for minority support for medical students, “so to think that the one avenue that they have for support targeted at them and their needs was being taken away — it was absolutely unacceptable.”

Amenra added that he does not believe “it would be right to replace one program with another that may be worse, or has a different or competing vision. If that isn’t the same as the previous organization that was doing good work, I think that would be problematic.”

While the petition — which calls for the reinstatement of ODCO as well as Hamilton and Luiggi to their positions — was submitted prior to Morrison’s announcement, the anonymous medical student says that concerns remain over the lack of student involvement in the plans to restructure the school’s diversity efforts.

“The people who are affected most by the decision weren’t involved with the decision,” the student said. She added that while the minority student groups cited in Morrison’s letter took part in talks regarding the Vice Dean for Diversity, they were not involved with the termination of ODCO.

Medical School alumni were also affected by ODCO’s closing and Morrison’s announcement.

“I was disappointed by the lack of transparency in the way the Office for Diversity and Community Outreach was closed. Students and alumni felt blindsided by the decision,” 2008 Medical School graduate Philip Lederer wrote in an email.

However, while 2008 Medical School graduate Kimberly Idoko signed the petition, she believes the changes outlined in Morrison’s letter will be positive. “At least there’s going to be some sort of person or figurehead to which students can go if they need counseling and advice regarding diversity,” she said. “It’s not being eliminated and completely ignored.”

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