First AVMA Diversity Symposium Touches on Disparities within the Industry

Veterinary professionals who spoke at the diversity symposium are shown here. Photograph provided by Caroline Schaffer, DVM

About 500 students, professors, deans, practitioners and other professionals attended the AVMA’s first diversity symposium on July 16, 2005, during the 142nd annual convention in Minneapolis. Seven speakers addressed ongoing racial and gender issues that impact veterinary business and stretch from the dearth of minority students – about 9.7 percent minority student enrollment in the U.S. – to a skewed workforce that may be ill-equipped to communicate with an increasingly diverse clientele.

“We need to plan to address the shift in demographics, which show that by 2050, most Americans will be non-white,” said Evan Morse, DVM, who moderated and organized the event with co-chair Tod Schadler, DVM. The AVMA will host the second diversity symposium at its 2006 meeting, which will focus on the role of private practitioners, Morse said. “It is my belief that practitioners are on the front line as recruiters for future applicants of people of diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds,” he said.

“For an initial symposium it was absolutely ground-breaking,” Morse continued. “I give credit to the AVMA for the foresight and sensitivity to bring this issue to national attention.” Issues of diversity have been a platform of discussion since 1978, but this is the first year that the AVMA has included the issues in its meeting roster, said professionals.

During the eight-hour symposium, speakers shared their experiences with discrimination, despite impressive accolades. Stories were not limited to skin color; professionals referenced an unwillingness to recognize academicians as full-fledged practitioners and urged industry members to take a hard look at the way that they approach colleagues.

“We need to fully embrace the spirit of what it means to bring another person to the table,” said Michael Blackwell, DVM, MPH, who told audience members, “This is one of those come to Jesus discussions,” as he discussed inequities in the industry. “This is not just a white issue. Veterinary medicine is a microcosm of a nation that hasn’t gotten it [diversity and the treatment of minorities] right.”

For Christine Hoang, third year veterinary student at the University of Minnesota, who has spearheaded several diversity initiatives, the symposium was inspirational and reassuring. “It was important for me to see a lot of other people who are passionate about the issues and to know that they’re working on the same issues,” she said.

In an attempt to tackle the issues from a college perspective, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges launched “Diversity Matters,” a national campaign that will focus on the recruitment of students of color, and the development of faculty members of color in veterinary medical schools. Lisa Greenhill, MPA, associate executive director of diversity for the AAVMC, is in charge of the campaign that was announced in September. Greenhill, who attended the symposium, noted the AVMA’s commitment to diversity issues and echoed statements from speakers who were concerned that they were, as some said, preaching to the choir. “We really do need our white colleagues to participate [in this effort,]” Greenhill noted.

Patricia Lowrie, director of the women’s resource center at Michigan State University, heard similar comments at the meeting, but had a slightly different perspective. “I come from a perspective that the choir needs to do its work, too,” she said. And one of the first action items might be to encourage younger generations to acknowledge the issues that exist, she said. “Our new generation doesn’t believe that there are issues, and when they find out that there are issues they are ill-equipped to deal with them,” she explained.

Lowrie, who also acts as director of the university’s women’s resource center, encouraged audience members to become social entrepreneurs who break down stereotypes and appreciate individuals for their unique talents. “We must encourage society to take leaps that will change the system, the demographics of our [industry’s] members,” she said.

Reviewing industry data, Lowrie cited flat numbers of minority applicants to veterinary medical school and said that in 2005, there were 335 students in the underrepresented minority category, which comprises black, Hispanic, and Native American students. “Excellence will be achieved when access is achieved,” she told audience members. “There has to be a will to be culturally agile and culturally literate.”

The AAVMC includes students of Asian and Pacific Island descent, two groups that raise the total number of underrepresented minority student applicants by about 30 percent, Greenhill said. For example, in 2005 the AAVMC shows that 583 underrepresented minority students applied to veterinary medicine schools. That number, which does not include Tuskegee, Tufts and Texas A&M figures, represents 13 percent of the total applicant pool, Greenhill explained. “Even with that added percentage, the numbers are still woefully low,” she said.

Overall, Greenhill was pleased with the ideas shared at the symposium and the AVMA’s commitment to continue the program next year. “It was encouraging that the AVMA decided that [the symposium] should be a long-lasting part of the annual meeting,” she said. “Different perspectives were offered and different practices shared their experiences and gave advice on how to collectively work on this issue.”

In conclusion, Blackwell told audience members, “You choose what to do when you leave here. What do you care about? Embrace it and work on it. This is not a minority issue. It’s a majority issue.”