NORFOLK — The first person Richard V. Homan hired after becoming provost of Eastern Virginia Medical School seven years ago was Mekbib Gemeda, in the newly created position of vice president for diversity and inclusion.
Homan said he wanted the student body at EVMS to better reflect the diversity of the patients, from both rural and urban areas, that the young doctors-in-training would serve.
Gemeda soon showed Homan a yearbook with portraits of three white students dressed in Confederate uniforms, standing in front of a Confederate battle flag. It was 2014, 30 years after the creation of a yearbook page dedicated to fourth-year student Ralph Northam, the future governor of Virginia, that featured a photo of a person in blackface and one in Ku Klux Klan garb.
“I was not aware we even had yearbooks,” said Homan, who became president as well as provost of the medical school in 2013 and whose career also included stints at the U.S. Public Health Service at the Whiteriver Indian Health Service hospital in Arizona and leading Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.
He told Gemeda, a former assistant dean for diversity affairs and community health at New York University’s School of Medicine, that the students who posed in Confederate garb should be counseled and undergo sensitivity training.
“We need to make sure they understand as physicians that this is offensive to me as well as to future patients and grossly offensive to minority students and African Americans,” Homan recalled saying. “They’re going to be taking care of everybody. You can’t be wearing incendiary symbols if you’re going to be a young physician and a healer.”
He also banned future editions of the yearbook, which he said had been largely run by students, with little oversight from the school’s staff — although some graduates of EVMS from the 1980s have told The Washington Post the yearbooks were submitted for staff review.
Homan said it did not occur to him at the time to review yearbooks from previous years, including the 1984 edition, the revelation of which has led to mass calls for Northam (D) to resign.
“In retrospect, that was my error,” said Homan, who was interviewed following an emergency meeting of the school’s Board of Visitors early Monday. “I thought because I stopped publication that would have been enough. I think in retrospect, I would have had an audit or review of those.”
At the meeting, Homan told board members the school has hired former Virginia attorney general Richard Cullen, a partner at McGuireWoods, to lead an investigation into how racist photos came to be published in EVMS yearbooks.
The investigation will seek, among other things, to determine who had oversight responsibility for the yearbooks. “That’s part of the investigation,” Homan said. “I don’t have the facts right now.”
Homan was on vacation in the Caribbean, celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary, when Northam’s yearbook page was posted online by the website Big League Politics, triggering a media furor. He returned Saturday night to a barrage of messages, including from many outraged EVMS alumni.
Northam has apologized for the photo. He took responsibility Friday night for appearing in it, but said Saturday he no longer believed the photo was his — and could not explain why it appeared on his page. He has refused to step down as governor.
During the 30-minute board meeting, Homan outlined the school’s plans to investigate the photos and also announced the creation of a Community Advisory Board to examine the school’s past and present campus culture. The advisory board will share any issues it uncovers with the legal firm leading the external investigation, the results of which eventually will become public.
“We want to be as open and transparent as possible,” Homan said. “We need to be sure that we examine ourselves.”
He said the school has taken multiple steps during his tenure to encourage and support diversity and inclusion, including hiring Gemeda, making admissions standards more holistic and instituting a mentoring program for minority students.
Some African American and other minority students from Northam’s era have described the school as a place of tolerance, full of civic-minded students — including Northam — eager to practice in low-income, historically underserved communities.
Homan said he planned to meet with underrepresented and minority students at EVMS. “I can’t imagine how they feel,” he told the board.
“We can’t ignore the fact there were incendiary and outrageous and shockingly disturbing pictures in a yearbook,” he added in the interview. “There has to be some way to sort that through. The only way to do that is to get at the heart of the investigation and find the facts and then communicate the results to the public.”
Earlier versions of this story misstated the year that EVMS President Richard Homan was shown a yearbook with students in Confederate garb. It was 2014.