Amid Tech Layoffs, Executives Weigh Suddenly Controversial Diversity Initiatives

The drama and division that afflicted school boards this past year may be coming to medical schools next – as the medical school rating outfit battles with dissident professors and activist groups over diversity and inclusion initiatives.

As corporate executives consider hiring freezes and layoffs – even at tech giants like Amazon, which announced its first layoffs in more than a decade this week, and Facebook, whose parent company Meta announced layoffs of 11,000 tech workers – typically marketing, HR, and diversity workers are targeted first. Given the political battles raging at public high schools and colleges and now medical schools, executives might want to weigh more carefully whether it is prudent to trim “soft” jobs that are disproportionately held by women and minorities.

While executives weigh their options, a closer look at the emerging controversy at medical schools might be instructive and illuminating.

It all began when the Association of American Medical Colleges conducted a survey of medical schools to monitor their efforts to enroll and educate more women and minorities. The association, which also has the singular power to approve or decline the accreditation for medical schools that makes federal funding possible, gives it incredible power over medical schools. Some 101 medical schools (two thirds of all 154 U.S. medical schools) responded to the survey. The association later issued a report called “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Medical Schools.” The association’s spokesmen, John Buarotti and Stuart Heiser, did not respond to email and phone requests for comment from Zenger News.

So far it was business as usual. Then, Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, a board-certified kidney specialist, objected. “Why are they deciding that diversity, equity, and inclusion has to be a central part of American medical education?”

Goldfarb is also chairman of Do No Harm, which he describes as a nonprofit organization that “fights against discrimination and advocates for meritocracy in healthcare.”

“A school like the University of Michigan has 140 people in their diversity, equity and inclusion office. Now, these people are now very powerful in the institution, they push the institution to spend huge amounts of money on consultants who can spend $100,000 for a one-day retreat,” said Goldfarb. “They’ll bring in famous speakers, and they’ll tell the institution how systemically racist it was.”

“Institutions [during the pandemic] suddenly declared that they were racist. A small group of activists around the country pushed this issue so strongly that schools decided to adopt it,” said Goldfarb. “It’s much easier to accept this than to fight it.”

Now the battle lines are being drawn between medical schools’ accreditation body and a small nonprofit backed by a ragtag band of dissident doctors. The fighting is raging on newspaper editorial pages, including in the New York Post, and across social media and talk radio.

In recent decades, diversity initiatives have sparked little controversy – on college or corporate campuses. Diversity training traces its roots to the dawn of the 1960s civil rights era, when government officials and scholars were trying to encourage schools, local governments, and private corporations to hire more women and minorities. Recent social reform movements, like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, magnified the focus on racial equity in the workplace.

But that consensus may be coming to an end.

Corporate executives might want to take note that what was uncontroversial just a year or two ago is now being polarized by political factions. Florida governor DeSantis’ battle with Disney appears to have been the start of a larger trend to question diversity and inclusion initiatives across the private sector.

The Association of American Medical Colleges report itself is long on statistics and short on dramatic language. It’s unclear what touched off the controversy given that the association’s study is virtually identical to so many such surveys conducted in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors in America.

The report divided medical schools into groups based on the intensity of their diversity efforts. 95 percent received the highest grade, which is colored green. Another 5 percent, marked yellow, scored above 60 percent compliance with the association’s diversity metrics. No school earned a red score of below 59 percent compliance. Exactly 100 percent of all medical schools surveyed say they are using affirmative action in their admissions process, practices that are now being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The association’s report soon became a Rorschach ink blot –different people saw diverging meanings. To the Association of American Medical Colleges and its supporters online, the report showed a measure of hopeful progress toward racial and gender inclusivity. To critics, the report showed how medical schools were marching in lockstep away from liberal ideals of individual equality toward reducing people to skin color and other physical attributes.

The report shows that the vast majority of medical schools embrace the focus on race-based equity: “99% of “institutional leaders [are] active within local, regional, and national forums to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, some schools report specifically furthering the careers of medical professionals who focus on diversity actions: 43% “have promotion and tenure policies that specifically reward faculty scholarship and service on DEI topics.” One example of the larger trend: The Indiana University School of Medicine implemented a policy requiring faculty to report diversity, equity, and inclusion activities in July 2022.

The corporate world has a similar consensus on the important of diversity and inclusion initiatives. Some 96 percent of CEOs agree that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are strategic priorities or goals for them, according to a 2020 Deloitte survey.

Supporters of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies say that incorporating these policies lead to better outcomes for patients because medical students are more prepared to treat patients from diverse racial, ethnic, and sexual orientations. A cross-cultural care study by Health Equity found that “nearly three-quarters [of medical residents surveyed] reported lack of experience with diverse patients to be a problem in their education.”

“Commitment to consistent DEI initiatives, especially training, not only is important for patient safety and better health outcomes, but also can be key for retaining qualified, engaged employees,” said Rola Aamar, PhD, senior clinical effectiveness consultant at Relias, a Morrisville, North Carolina-based healthcare company, in a prepared statement.

A clutch of critics are concerned that the Association of American Medical Colleges is politicizing medical training, rather than concentrating on raising the skill level of potential doctors, who often make life-and-death decisions.

“When you go see the doctor, or you have a surgery, the number one thing is that you want to get better. A lot of these topics, even if well-intentioned, unfortunately take away from academic instructional time,” said Kristina Rasmussen, executive director of Do No Harm. “We should be recruiting the best doctors, who have the potential to be a great doctor, not because they check someone’s boxes.”

“Equality under the law is important. Equity is something else entirely,” Rasmussen said. “It’s making people ascribe to an ideology that they may not agree with.”

Are diversity and inclusion policies suddenly controversial? The first flash point is likely to be which kinds of employees are laid off as tech companies implement the largest waves of staff reductions since the April 2001 “tech wreck.”

In any layoffs, human resources and diversity teams are often the first to go. During Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, nearly half of Twitter’s 8,000 were let go and employee research groups like Twitter Women and Blackbirds were dismantled. Chief people and diversity officer Dalana Brand resigned the day that Musk took over Twitter.

Executives may soon be in the uncomfortable position of being criticized no matter whether diversity officers are told to stay or go.

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