Harvard Med creates more diverse image by taking down 31 portraits

June 20, 2018

Harvard Medical School is doing a different kind of “scrubbing up” these days, according to a June 15 report by Campus Reform. The school is “cleaning up” its professional and public image—and promoting diversity—by removing 31 portraits of former department heads from a lecture-room wall where they have been hanging for decades. The reason? All of the paintings are of men. And 30 out of 31 of those men are white, while one is Asian.

That made for an uncomfortable contrast, as the Boston Globe noted in its own story on June 14, because the employees and students who regularly gather there include women, blacks, and Hispanics.

“School officials confirmed … that the portraits of 31 medical school deans—which formerly hung in the school’s Louis Bornstein Family Amphitheater [at Brigham and Women’s Hospital]— have been ‘dispersed’ to various lobbies and conference rooms,” Campus Reform disclosed.

The move may have been prompted by a recent call to action by WhiteCoats4BlackLives,a national activist group that aims to eliminate racial bias in the practice of medicine. The group recently targeted Harvard Medical School for allegedly promoting racial bias, the Globe also reported—claiming that there were a “dearth of plaques, statues, portraits, and building names on campuses that acknowledge contributions from physicians of color.”

Indeed, the group published a Racial Justice Report Card this year that found that only 10.7% of medical school graduates in 2016 were Black, Latinx, or Native American.  This represents a major issue because medical schools are the gatekeepers to the health professions

What’s more, the group says, patients of color often are unable to access care at academic medical centers in their communities. For example, black patients in New York City are less than half as likely as white patients to receive care at academic medical centers.

The Racial Justice Report Card, compiled for the first time this year, grades ten major medical schools on 15 anti-racism factors—and provides an overall grade for each institution, as follows: Harvard: B; Johns Hopkins: C+; Mt. Sinai: B-; University of Pennsylvania: C; Thomas Jefferson University: C; UC-San Francisco: B-; University of Michigan: B-; University of Pittsburgh: B-; Washington University in St. Louis: B-; and Yale: C. Not one of them came in with a B+ or an A.

The hospital’s president, Dr. Betsy Nabel, told the Globe that she had considered ending the tradition of hanging pictures of retired chairs in the auditorium for several years, especially as more women and minorities train as doctors at the hospital. “I have watched the faces of individuals as they have come into Bornstein,’’ Nabel said in an interview. “I have watched them look at the walls. I read on their faces ‘Interesting. but I am not represented here.’ That got me thinking maybe it’s time that we think about respecting our past in a different way.’’

Research contact: national@whitecoats4blacklives.org

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