Recruiting, Retaining, Advancing Diverse Faculty

Harvard Medical School Dean Joan Reede: “Diversity is not a problem for women or people of color to solve alone.”

April 1, 2019
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They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world a more inclusive place. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are mentoring students or younger colleagues, hiring diverse candidates, offering opportunities, and ensuring that employees succeed and are promoted so that their workplace and their communities reflect the richness and talents of the country’s increasingly diverse population.

They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.

For pediatrician Joan Reede, it’s important that people know she also is a professor of medicine, because there are so few African American women teaching in medical schools. Of more than 70,000 full-time women faculty at US medical schools in 2018, just over 3,600 were black or African American, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Reede (Questrom’08), who became the first dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School in 2002, has worked for decades to change that. In 1990, she founded the Harvard Medical School Minority Faculty Development Program, which helps prospective faculty acquire the skills and knowledge they need to move from medical practice to medical education. Funded fellowships offer support for medical research, an important part of getting, and keeping, a medical school faculty position.

And even as Reede applauds the growing number of doctors of color, she is quick to point out that the effort must start early. The Diversity and Community Partnership Office provides K-12 teachers with curriculum materials promoting science literacy and introducing science careers. The partnership reaches out to biotech, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and other healthcare institutions to fund and develop lab tours, mentorships, and other opportunities for young people with a love of science. Harvard Medical School sponsors students in high school, college, and medical school to participate in partnership programs.

BU Today spoke with Reede about facing racism and about the women who opened doors for her.

  1. BU Today: What was your experience like at BU?

    Reede: By the time I got there, I was already a practicing physician and I had a master’s in public health. There were professors there who struck me as being thoughtful about diversity, which I appreciated.

  2. Have you ever felt as though a door was not open to you because of your background?

    When I was a senior resident physician handling outpatient visits, a family came and said they didn’t want a [n-word] doctor seeing their child. That can be hurtful, because you spend all that time training. But that’s just part of being black. But it had never occurred to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t be in any space because I am African American or a woman, because how others think about me has nothing to do with my path. So, I didn’t feel a need to react. I just assigned the family to an intern. But then, when they had bigger questions, they asked to talk with the senior resident. That was me. The look on the father’s face was disbelief and embarrassment. That was a lesson for them to learn; their racism was not my problem.

  3. What are the more subtle forms of intolerance or racism you have faced? And how did you handle those experiences?

    One time I was getting followed around a store while I was shopping—the assumption being that I was going to steal. So I turned around and said to the employee, “If you’re going to follow me around, you can at least hold these for me.” Then I handed her the clothes I picked out. It was worth it to see the expression on her face. But the bottom line is, I didn’t get angry, she still got the message, and I had someone to carry my stuff.

Reede speaks with colleagues in her office

Joan Reede meeting with Harvard Commonwealth Fund Fellow Jennifer Parker, MD, T. H. Chan School of Public Health, 2019.

  1. Who opened doors for you?

    I had the advantage of growing up in a family that named racism and talked about it. I learned that racism is a part of being a black woman in America, but that racism wasn’t mine. Naming it allows you to think about it as something separate from yourself. I was surrounded by strong, smart black women, and from them learned to have a sense of identity, purpose, and passion that were driven by something bigger than what’s around me, whether it’s racism or anything else.

  2. What can people do in their own workplaces to make them more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming?

    It’s not like you do one thing and it solves everything. Working toward diversity has to be embedded in the organizational infrastructure, and not just an initiative or program you set up that fades away after a year or two because “it didn’t work.”

    With pipeline issues, you can provide opportunities, but you can’t just sit back and hope that people find their way to your door. They have to be deliberate about it, and not just do things that feel good. They have to start with a basic understanding of what they are thinking of when they say diversity. Who are you looking for? There are multiple forms of diversity and different kinds of marginalization. So, they have to be deliberate about the message they send and who receives it.

  3. Can you talk about the current political climate with respect to diversity and inclusion?

    This is definitely a challenging time period, and not just in terms of diversity and inclusion. But as far as that’s concerned, there are a lot of people who thought we were much farther ahead than we are. That can be disheartening or depressing for them, but I was never under the impression that racism is gone or a thing of the past. And diversity is not a problem for women or a problem for people of color to solve alone. We all have our “isms,” so we all have to own the problems those isms create.

  4. What specific changes have you made in your workplace?

    Diversity is now included in the mission statement of Harvard Medical School. It’s now recognizing the history of our culture and the need to understand conscious and unconscious bias, and creating safe spaces for dialogue.

    As far as numbers, there were less than 200 black faculty in Harvard’s medical and dental schools when the minority faculty program started; now there are over 700. That’s great, but it’s not just about numbers. It’s not just adding faces to a picture. We also need to bring in different ways of solving problems. I’m not just interested in who gets a seat at the table, but whose voice is heard once they’re sitting there, and how much their voices influence policy. We have to work on that as well.

Leah Samuel is a freelance writer. Send emails to

Do you know BU alumni, faculty, and staff who are opening doors or breaking barriers themselves? Email Cindy Buccini at and recommend them for our series “Opening Doors.”

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There are 3 comments on Recruiting, Retaining, Advancing Diverse Faculty

  1. Great article! I loved Dr. Reede’s response to being followed around in a store – and calling it out – without making a fuss. She diffused the situation (and I am sure many more that just aren’t included in the article above) with grace and humor. I think we can all learn from Dr. Reede’s actions, and address issues of diversity in the small ways in our everyday lives. Sometimes this is a more effective approach than big, loud, in-your-face approaches that our current political climate seems to encourage.

  2. These inclusion programs only work when the process is based on merit. Selecting students to be trained in a career of providing the best health care and wellness should begin with a very high criteria educational level profile potential and more and not based only on diversity.

    1. This is a wonderful article and the work done at Harvard under Dr. Reede’s leadership is a model for the rest of us, but I wanted to comment on: “These inclusion programs only work when the process is based on merit.” I think that everyone who gains entry into medical school, or other health profession is expected to have “a very high criteria educational level profile potential.” It appears that many people think decisions are made ” based only on diversity.” I can’t imagine any program having success if it was ” based only on diversity.” The use of “merit” as a measure for inclusion has long been used as a method for exclusion, and is sometimes based upon the social connections, or philanthropic efforts of one’s family. I often find that I need to stop and try to understand exactly what someone means when they say a “process is based on merit.” I hope that I am not misinterpreting the meaning of the previous comment.

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