Putting Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Into Practice
Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Eric G. Williams, PhD, joined RFU Aug. 30 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), where he spent nearly a decade leading diversity initiatives. He helped UW achieve a 90% retention rate for underrepresented students in divisional programs, worked closely with community partners to build pipelines to higher education, and secured donor support for scholarships and faculty and staff development. He also served Marquette University as executive director of its Educational Opportunity Program, leading the program through its first strategic planning process in 50 years. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Dr. Williams holds a master’s degree in higher education and college student personnel from Kent State University and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from Virginia Tech.
HELIX: Why is diversity, equity and inclusion important for the education of the future health and biomedical workforce?
DR. WILLIAMS: Diversity, equity and inclusion are concepts that must be put into practice to help ensure that we’re addressing health inequities that are at the root of the disparities in disease we see across many communities, especially among LGBTQ people and Black, Indigenous, people of color, or BIPOC — a term we use in the spirit of solidarity. I think we have to bring in students and researchers and faculty members who want to look at those inequities and find ways to address them. As we look at the high rates of diabetes, asthma, cancer and so many chronic diseases, we have to look at the environment in which so many people of color live and their standard of living, which narrows their choices and affects their quality of life.
How do we educate future health professionals who will address those issues?
That’s where a big part of my work comes in. Making sure the social determinants of health are infused across the curriculum. Making sure we are facilitating workshops and seminars and classes that are focused on issues of health disparities in certain populations. Making sure that, as an academic institution, as a health professions institution, we are teaching and modeling equitable treatment across all populations, not just those that have good insurance and can afford care — because what happens in my community affects other communities as well. We have to make sure we make that connection.
We know that people with low educational attainment experience poorer health and die younger. What’s the work of DE&I in that context?
We need to work with area schools and community agencies to make sure that we are helping to prepare students to not only graduate from high school, but to pursue college degrees and higher education in STEM. Developing the next generation of health professionals and scientists is not only beneficial health-wise, but it’s also beneficial on the socioeconomic side. We need to develop a diverse, highly skilled and educated workforce that can address health inequities within communities and contribute to their economic and civic vitality.
We’ve seen how the underrepresentation of people of color in the health professions has undermined trust in our healthcare system, especially among BIPOC communities. That goes to the issue of identity. How do you think about your own identity?
I am a straight African American male, born near the end of the Baby Boom generation. I grew up in the South, where lawsuits filed by the NAACP helped end legal segregation, but where segregation based on norms persisted. I’m a former Marine but retired from the Army Reserves. I’m a Christian, while at the same time I can question how Christianity is practiced. I look at other faiths and take away some things and apply them to the way I live and how I treat people.
Will you share some of your experiences of racism?
I could talk about how my parents followed my school bus when new busing laws sent me, as a second grader, to help integrate an all-white school — a full generation after Brown v. Board of Education. Or about how Black Marines undergoing training at Fort McCoy, in western Wisconsin, were pulled aside and told, “Don’t go into town, because the bars won’t let you in, and you might be attacked.” But I really reckoned with racism when I was attending Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, home of Arthur Ashe, the great tennis player, who was denied access to tournaments and courts there. When a group wanted to raise a statue of him on Monument Avenue, some folks were outraged that, basically, a boulevard reserved for heroes of the Confederacy was about to include a Black man. During another controversy a few years later, I wrote to the editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch supporting the removal of a mural of Robert E. Lee. I concluded that letter by paraphrasing an African proverb: “When the lions have historians, the hunters will cease to be heroes.”
Students and faculty thrive when they feel supported. They thrive when they know their voice matters.
Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 5% of the physician workforce. Is that evidence of systemic racism?
Yes. We can look at the data and see the evidence. By data, I don’t mean just who is successful and who is not successful in obtaining a medical degree. I mean all of the systems behind those successes or failures, like certain institutional practices and norms. If we look deeply at local, state and national data, we can see systemic racism in all its forms in education, health care, employment, income, food insecurity, housing, criminal justice, political representation and on and on. Systemic racism presents enormous barriers to a diverse healthcare workforce.
How did you encounter racism in higher learning?
I attended Virginia Tech for my doctoral program, and some of the traditions there made it very difficult for a person of color or a woman to make it through. The Confederacy was highly revered. Men who fought for it — slaveholders, white supremacists — were honored. But what about us? The Confederacy fought to keep us enslaved. Some Black students transferred to other schools. But one of the reasons I stayed was to make sure we addressed systemic racism. Because what about the next generation of students? When there’s a recruitment and retention problem, it’s often assumed it’s either money or academics. But that’s only part of it. We need to put structures in place to make sure we are prepared to receive and allow students to be successful. Students and faculty thrive when they feel supported. They thrive when they know their voice matters. Fostering a sense of community creates a sense of belonging, which promotes retention and persistence.
You helped secure a $10 million contribution to advance the work of UW’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement. Your thoughts on philanthropic support for DE&I?
Philanthropy is extremely important for scholarships and funding for underrepresented students and faculty, but also for staff and programming. We’re looking at fundraising for both endowments and unrestricted dollars. I want to build a social media presence around our DE&I efforts, our successes and our aspirations, to make sure we are really speaking to people — potential donors — who want to help with those efforts.
Judy Masterson is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.