Richard V. Homan, ,a physician, is president and provost of Eastern Virginia Medical School and dean of the School of Medicine.
Delivering bad news to patients is always difficult. The task is emotionally challenging for physicians but necessary for the care of our patients. Our goal is to understand why something bad happened and find ways to aid recovery. For the past four months, Eastern Virginia Medical School and its community have been facing bad news.
The abhorrent image published on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) page in our 1984 yearbook showing a man in blackface and a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe does not represent our core values or our individual or institutional ethos. Nevertheless, it has been acutely injurious to the African American community and our academic community. We sincerely apologize.
EVMS is not the only school exhibiting these symptoms. A review of 900 publications from 120 schools across the country, reported by USA Today on Feb. 21, revealed numerous images of “blatant racism.” This is not an excuse but, regrettably, a troubling diagnosis of conscious and unconscious bias and racism that continue to exist.
The hatred embodied by such discrimination and bigotry is a cancer on our society. EVMS is committed to eradicating that cancer wherever it might be found within our reach. Our campus has engaged in difficult conversations to begin the healing process and is taking sustainable and durable actions to emerge stronger. We call on schools and communities throughout the United States to make the same commitment and not let silence shroud this difficult issue once again.
Within 48 hours of the now-infamous photo being posted online, we engaged the McGuireWoods law firm to investigate the image’s publication in our yearbook. We committed to an independent, external investigation with no limits on its scope, and we pledged to make the results public. We have honored those commitments in the spirit of Justice William Brandeis’s observation that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Despite its extensive work, McGuireWoods was unable to determine if the governor was in the photo. We would prefer a definitive answer. In the end, however, other issues are more relevant to EVMS: How were such offensive photos published? What precautions do we need to take to ensure this does not happen again?
Our moral and fiduciary responsibility is to our students, faculty, residents and staff; to the communities we serve; and to the profession of medicine itself. We must be a diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus. We have made demonstrable progress. In 2013, we established an office of diversity and inclusion and hired its founding vice president. We aspire to have the demography of students, faculty and staff reflect the demography of the communities and patients we serve.
Also in 2013, we adopted a holistic admissions process to look beyond grades and test scores to include the personal experiences of our medical student applicants. Consequently, we have almost doubled the number of minority students enrolled in our medical program while improving student performance on national licensing examinations to well above national benchmarks. We also implemented ongoing cultural-awareness and implicit-bias training to promote equity on our campus and in our community.
On March 8, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education honored EVMS with its national Institutional Excellence Award for demonstrating measurable progress in sustaining innovative diversity efforts on campus. The irony of the timing is not lost on us. However, this recognition is a testament to the hard work of our faculty, students, residents and staff. Their commitment to the community and each other makes them better clinicians, healers and citizens.
We cannot change the past, nor can we hide from it. However, we can resolve not to let the past define us. We will learn from it and do better. To that end, I empowered an external Community Advisory Board for Diversity and Inclusion to provide recommendations for the future. We look forward to its report this fall and commit to sharing it publicly as well.
Receiving bad news is difficult — especially when you are the patient — but facing it directly is necessary for recovery. This cancer of bigotry is treatable, and we are taking concrete and sustained actions to excise it. It will take time for this wound to heal, yet we continue to improve, and the prognosis is excellent. The best days for EVMS lie ahead.