Academia has a diversity problem. African Americans make up 12.7 percent of the US population but just 4 percent of tenured faculty, while Hispanics and Latinxs account for 17.6 percent of the US population but only 4.6 percent of tenured faculty.
The little evidence we have on faculty from low-income backgrounds suggests they struggle with feelings of isolation and may conceal their backgrounds to colleagues.
As siblings of academia, research and policy organizations, like the Urban Institute, can do more to foster inclusive, diverse environments among their staff.
What could we gain if we committed to increasing diversity in research?
I spoke with Jewel Mullen, the associate dean for health equity at the Dell Medical School of the University of Texas at Austin, to explore this question. A former deputy assistant secretary in the US Department of Health and Human Services, Mullen is a leader in coordinating communities, public health, and health care systems to address America’s persistent health inequities and disparities.
Mullen also serves on the advisory committee for Policies for Action, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which just released a new call for proposals to increase equity, diversity, and inclusion in policy and law research.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge for policy researchers interested in informing equitable and inclusive policies?
A: People get stuck in a few ways. One is believing that a “diverse group” is simply non-white, as opposed to comprised of an array of races, ethnicities, and perspectives. “Diversity” doesn’t mean finding all black and brown people to work on something together.
Another is not being intentional about including from the outset communities impacted by a policy. I believe that teams of different perspectives, life experiences, and varying ideas about policy change can get us closer to solutions. They are better equipped to recognize who a policy will impact, what considerations have been left out, and how to implement the policy successfully.
Committing to more diversity in the research is an acknowledgement that the problems we’re trying to address with policy and systems change impact all of society, not simply those who are most affected or stand to benefit most.
Q: It sounds like you’re talking about the concept of health equity, right?
A: Absolutely. When we’re talking about optimal health for all and giving everyone a fair opportunity to be well, we are talking about everyone—even when we prioritize the needs of populations experiencing the greatest inequities.
In Texas, I’ve started citing a study that found the economic impact from direct medical care and lost productivity related to racial health disparities alone was about $4.6 billion in a single year. Economic costs of that magnitude are not just a black and brown problem.
From a perspective of equity, that notion of wanting everyone to do better also gets more support when we demonstrate inclusion in our thinking and research design.
Q: You often describe yourself as a “nonacademic academic.” In your current position, what are your main goals for the medical school and the research conducted there?
A: Although I was trained as a researcher, I am more a practitioner and policymaker than traditional scholar. Some schools identify advancing equity as part of their social mission. But there are a lot of educational, research, clinical, and community systems to transform.
I’ve never let go of my grandiose notions. And the one that brought me to Dell Med was that I was going to be doing public health inside a medical school. I remind colleagues that since medical care accounts for only about 20 percent of health, we must collaborate with public health, social work, and other sectors to advance equity. And I have challenged us to adopt social accountability not only by attending to social determinants, but by confronting structural inequities inside our own organization—inequities that we have the authority and obligation to correct.
Committing to addressing inequities gives us a pathway to make small, incremental changes that will lead us to achieve health equity. By narrowing our focus, and shining a mirror on ourselves and the inequities built into academia, medicine, and public health, we give ourselves the power to mitigate them.
Q: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
A: Finding the right collaborators and mentors is key. Sometimes people early in their careers know that they care about an issue, but they haven’t gone deeper to consider the research questions they want to answer and how to go about doing so. Success doesn’t come from just knowing what you want to do. Someone needs to get you on the right path and help you stay there.
This is especially true if you’re someplace where your interest is relatively novel compared to what others have done in the past.
Q: Mentorship is a big component of the new call for proposals from Policies for Action. What other reflections do you have about this funding opportunity?
A: I see this call for proposals, and Policies for Action, as a way for all of us to stay honest about what we want research to accomplish.
Policies for Action and the research it funds can orient medicine, public health, social science, and law as parts of a larger puzzle and help determine how the pieces best fit together to make the most impact.
It’s also a call for academic institutions to demonstrate meaningful support for those who propose to do this research. The sustainability of anybody’s career is going to hinge on the support they get at their institution. Valuing their policy research also demonstrates social accountability.
In addition to successful scholars, these young researchers could be the next assistant secretary for health or CDC director or run Google Health. Fostering greater diversity in our research teams will yield benefits that extend beyond academia.
Academia needs to change, but so does everything else.