Virginia Med School Gets Diversity Honor Amid Blackface Outrage

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school, Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) in Norfolk, received a national diversity honor while a scandal swirled around racist photos found printed next to the governor’s picture in a 1984 yearbook, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

The National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) awarded the Institutional Excellence Award in February to EVMS. The award is given each year to a school that has shown “measurable progress in promoting and sustaining innovative diversity efforts.”

Richard V. Homan, MD, president and provost of the school, told The Virginian-Pilot that he learned of the award “after the chaos” from the controversy. Next to the governor’s picture was a picture of a man in blackface and another person wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Other racist and offensive photos have since surfaced in EVMS yearbooks and yearbooks at other schools.

“I told my wife, ‘God has a wry sense of humor,'” Homan, who accepted the award at a ceremony on March 8, was quoted as saying on Tuesday at an EVMS board meeting.

Medscape Medical News reported news from a press conference on February 5 during which Homan said that EVMS has established a community advisory board to perform an independent assessment of the culture and operations of EVMS.

In early February, calls were intensifying for Northam, who is 1 year into his 4-year term, to resign. He has resisted the backlash and remains in office.

Advances Made Despite the Irony

Marcus Martin, MD, an EVMS board member who is African American, recommended the school to NADOHE in early January, according to the newspaper.

“The nomination was submitted before we had the information about what happened at the state level,” Martin told The Virginian-Pilot. “So again, I think we can praise God for knowing that this institution is doing a lot of the right things.”

At the February 5 press conference, Mekbib Gemeda, EVMS vice president for diversity and inclusion, described ongoing diversity efforts there.

“I believe we have made significant efforts in the past 6 years at this institution to advance diversity and inclusion,” he told reporters.

Among the efforts has been adoption of holistic review in admissions, training the admissions committee to look at all the qualities applicants bring to the institution beyond academic metrics.

“We doubled the number of minority students in our MD program in the past 2 years, reaching 20% of the last two classes,” Gemeda said, adding that the school is also increasing pipeline efforts at high schools to attract particularly more African American students into medical professions.

According to the school, minorities currently make up 38% of students, 21% of faculty, 35% of residents, and 40% of staff.

In a prepared statement, NADOHE President Archie Ervin, PhD, said: “We are delighted to offer this unprecedented opportunity to acknowledge and reward innovation in inclusive excellence.”

Still, the irony was not lost on some members of the board this week when members learned of the award.

The newspaper reported that board member Theresa Emory, MD, said at the meeting, “And we got it — EVMS — in the middle of all this?”

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