Harvard Medical Students Are Demanding More Diversity on Campus

They're calling for a dean who supports and fights for equality.


The first-year class. Photo by Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg

Only two members of Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) current first-year class identify as black women. Just 6 percent of its full-time faculty members come from backgrounds that are “underrepresented in medicine,” and only 17 percent are women.

But Harvard dental and medical students are not standing by. Instead, 65 of them have come together, labeling themselves the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC), to demand that the institution prioritize diversity in its curriculum, administration, and admission process.

“It’s not a trend that’s unique to Harvard, but we do believe that for an institution that really prides itself on the basic, translational, and clinical sciences, that we should also be holding ourselves to the same standard in the social arena,” says Cameron Nutt, an HMS student involved with the RJC. “Our mission statement actually pushes us to do so.”

Perhaps the most actionable step toward that goal is a petition drafted by the RJC, calling for the next HMS dean—the replacement for Dean Jeffrey Flier, who will step down in July—to be one who will push for school-wide equality. So far, the document has roughly 300 signatures, and the support of both students and faculty. The group plans to present it to Harvard University President Drew Faust this week.

“Being plain, there have been some issues with representation in medicine all throughout America’s history,” says Danial Ceasar, a first-year HMS student and co-leader of the RJC. “It’s really been known to be a game in which there aren’t many minorities.”

HMS is no stranger to that game. In 1850, the student body so voraciously opposed the admission of three black students and one woman that then-Dean Oliver Wendell Holmes—father of the Supreme Court justice of the same name—rescinded their acceptances. It’s in part because of that episode that the RJC feels so strongly about its mission.

“It’s a reminder that what happens here in Boston has implications across the country,” Nutt says. “We hope that offers us a chance to come to terms with our institution’s history, to speak honestly and respectfully about it.”

Though Ceasar, himself a black student, says he would love to see “someone who looks a little bit more like me” taking over the dean’s role, both he and Nutt say a commitment to equality, regardless of gender or race, is the most important qualification.

“Just choosing someone who is black or Latino or Native American doesn’t solve the problem,” Ceasar says. “There are many people who aren’t from those backgrounds who care deeply about diversity and will fight tooth and nail for those things. And there are others who are from those communities who won’t fight as hard.”

The fight is worth fighting, Nutt and Ceasar say, because solid medical care depends on it. Nutt recalls a dermatology lesson in which 32 of 33 diagnostic images shown depicted people with a light skin tone—a ratio he and his peers feel is unacceptable.

“That is what’s at stake, in terms of ensuring that our training, our curricula, and our interactions with faculty are preparing all students to think critically about issues of health equity,” he says, “but also to ensure that we’re not somehow preparing ourselves to perpetuate already existing disparities in access to and quality of healthcare.”