Sitting in a conference room filled with more than 20 African American medical students, Johnson Haynes Jr., M.D., remembers not being able to see a face like his among his peers in that same building just 30 years ago.
By Nichelle Smith
Sitting in a conference room filled with more than 20 African American medical students, Johnson Haynes Jr., M.D., remembers not being able to see a face like his among his peers in that same building just 30 years ago. “We’ve come a long way,” Haynes reflected. “The present state of the USA College of Medicine is quite diverse and there are currently more African American students enrolled than at any other time in the history of the College of Medicine.”
The University of South Alabama College of Medicine charter class began in 1973, just 10 years after USA was founded. The first class of 25 students included John Wagner, the only African American. The first African American female – Pat Sanders – followed soon after in 1974.
The same year, a three-story Medical Sciences Building opened and still serves as the home for the College of Medicine. After constructing the building, a plaque reading “Medical Sciences Building 1973, George C. Wallace, Governor,” was fixed in the brick wall, now serving as a memento of the College of Medicine’s humble beginnings for many who enter.
George Wallace, who is known for his stand in the schoolhouse door protest at the University of Alabama when an African American student enrolled for the first time, served as governor of Alabama during the time the medical school was established in Mobile.
According to Haynes, the plaque – positioned near the “schoolhouse door” at the USA College of Medicine – now serves as a visual reminder of just how far the College of Medicine has come.
A 1980 graduate of the USA College of Medicine, Haynes went on to be the first African American clinical faculty member and the first and only African American basic science faculty member at the USA College of Medicine.
Currently serving in numerous leadership roles – as professor of internal medicine at the USA College of Medicine, assistant dean of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a pulmonologist with USA Health, and director of the USA Health Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center – Haynes has experienced every facet of the College of Medicine, from medical school and residency to fellowship training and ultimately a faculty member.
“In 1980, I was the only African American in my graduating class and no faculty members looked like me,” Haynes said. “If mutual respect amongst different cultures and races is to be achieved, establishment of a critical mass is essential at every level of the College of Medicine. The highest level of success in doing this is amongst the students, where African American representation now approaches 10 percent but still is far less than the 26.2 percent of African Americans living in Alabama.”
“What often goes unrecognized is the significance of students not seeing anyone that look like them in places where decisions are being made,” Haynes said. “The need remains for a more diverse faculty and administration. The openness to achieve this is perhaps the most significant change in culture I have experienced since joining the faculty in 1988.”
As part of a settlement agreement in 2006 in a case known as Knight, et al. v. United States of America, et al, the University of South Alabama agreed to draft a Strategic Diversity Plan to help guide the university in its continued efforts to expand and increase diversity. As part of the Knight settlement, the university put in place certain programs designed specifically to help minority students more successfully transition to the rigors of graduate school, particularly medical school.
Two components of the consent decree directly involved the educational opportunities within the College of Medicine. The first included a more aggressive approach to the recruitment of academically qualified minority African Americans through the normal admissions process. The second component of the consent decree is the Pre-professional Biomedical Enrichment and Recruitment Program (BEAR). The BEAR program was later updated and renamed to Diversity Recruitment and Enrichment for Admission (DREAM). DREAM continues today under the leadership of Jeff Sosnowski, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medical education at the USA College of Medicine, with 11 medical students currently enrolled in the College of Medicine. More than 50 graduates of BEAR/DREAM have matriculated into the USA College of Medicine, with graduates serving the Gulf Coast communities and beyond.
In 2011, the Association of American Medical Colleges encouraged academic medical institutions to embrace a framework for diversity that included removing social and legal barriers to diversity, intentionally integrating diversity into teaching, and embedding diversity into the core workings of the institution.
In response, Haynes developed the USA Office of Diversity and Cultural Competence, which changed to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2014. The office supports various activities including development of a collegiate level pipeline program, SouthMed Prep Scholars. Currently, SouthMed Prep Scholars has four medical students enrolled at the USA College of Medicine.
In 2018 – in an effort to further address the state of diversity and inclusion at the College of Medicine and throughout USA Health – R. Franklin Trimm, M.D., was appointed associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the USA College of Medicine and assistant vice president for medical affairs at USA Health.
In this new role, Trimm is responsible for the oversight of policies and programs related to diversity and inclusion for students, residents, faculty and staff at USA Health and the USA College of Medicine. “Diversity and inclusion at our academic medical center is one of our primary strengths,” Trimm said.
The office actively sponsors and supports activities within the College of Medicine and USA Health to promote diversity and inclusion. In addition to coordinating DREAM and SouthMed Prep Scholars programs, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion also provides support for and recognition of student clubs to promote safe spaces, group activities and educational activities that promote diversity and inclusion. Sessions on the impact of unconscious bias have been integral to this effort.
Shortly after Trimm’s appointment, LoRen Burroughs Modisa – a 2013 graduate of USA – was named diversity coordinator for the USA College of Medicine. In her position, Burroughs is responsible for helping to foster a supportive and inclusive environment for students, faculty and staff through programming and targeted initiatives. She also oversees various USA College of Medicine pipeline programs in an effort to give high-achieving students from underrepresented groups access and exposure to a career in medicine.
Since its inception, both the Office of Diversity and Cultural Competence and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion have become an integral and vital part of the College of Medicine.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, African Americans make up 8.4 percent of medical students in the United States during 2018-2019, compared to the 9.1 percent of African American students at the USA College of Medicine.
Trimm, Modisa and Haynes agree that by knowing and acknowledging the past, and celebrating the progress being made, USA Health has a great opportunity to continue striving towards excellence in diversity and inclusion. “Excellence on every front involves a diverse group of people being part of a team,” Trimm said. “The higher the diversity, the greater chance we have of achieving excellence.”