Dean's Update 2021-10

October 7, 2021

During my tenure as dean, we as a college have initiated multiple efforts to combat the historic and ongoing lack of diversity that exists in both osteopathic and allopathic medical professions. Closing this glaring diversity gap will enrich the training of our student doctors to ensure they are equipped with wide perspectives that make them maximally capable of addressing the unique health and wellness issues that affect our increasingly diverse patients.

Our efforts include broadening our network of pathway programs, decreasing the cost of tuition to foster matriculation of a more diverse student body, expanding the COM Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and implementing other DEI initiatives, and establishing the COM Associate Dean’s Office for Diversity and Campus Inclusion. Though we are heartened at the progress we’re making—and the solid foundation we’re laying for future progress—we recognize that we have a long way to go.

This month, I sat down with inspiring SpartanDO alumna Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee to reflect on the current diversity disparity within a historical context, how far the osteopathic medical field has come, and what the future may hold.  

Ross-Lee earned her place in history as the third Black woman to become an osteopathic physician when she graduated from of the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1973. (Incredibly, Dr. Ross-Lee accomplished this while caring for her two young children.) She followed in the footsteps of Meta Loretta Christy, the first Black woman to graduate with a degree in osteopathic medicine in 1921.

Since then, Ross-Lee has had a long, trailblazing, multiple glass-ceiling-shattering career in which she has worked as a family physician, an educator, a university administrator, and a Navy reserve officer. Among her most impressive achievements were being elected the first Black woman dean of a medical school in 1993, at Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, and serving as the founding director of the American Osteopathic Association Health Policy Fellowship Program, a position she held for 25 years.

Ross-Lee also sits on several boards and said she has “failed” at retirement, as she will take the helm as president of the American Osteopathic Foundation in January and will soon serve as the president of the Maryland College of Osteopathic Medicine, the first osteopathic medical school to co-locate and collaborate with a Historically Black College and University—in this case, Morgan State University. (The program is currently undergoing the accreditation process and plans to convene its first class in 2024.)

Ross-Lee served as the Grand Marshal for MSU’s annual homecoming parade earlier this month. Though incredibly busy, Dr Ross-Lee took time to come back to MSU and serve not only as Grand Marshal, but also as an ambassador for the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine and what we stand for. I would like to thank Dr Ross-Lee for all she did during the homecoming festivities and we are forever grateful to her support of our college, and her efforts that reflect so positively on all we do.

“I am so honored to be the grand marshal, it’s such a big occasion—I marvel at how it pulls people together,” Ross-Lee said. “Honored doesn’t quite capture it. It’s deep.”

Watch our full conversation here—broadcast by MSU-WKAR as part of the overall MSU homecoming events—and read on for highlights from our talk.

Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee reflects on her glass-ceiling-shattering career and the progress of women and BIPOC in the medical field

Ross-Lee said she didn’t necessarily aspire to a career of firsts, but she was always guided by a personal standard of excellence that propelled her forward even when leaders and systems were less than encouraging. An early lesson she learned was not depending on her environment to decide what she was capable of.

“If I did that, at most I’d be mediocre,” Ross-Lee said. “So I made the decision to set my own expectations and not take on the biases of those around me. I had to sit down and say, ‘I’m not letting them define me.’”

Ross-Lee was also fortunate to have mentors along the way to help push her toward career opportunities—assistance she has tried to provide to others by devoting part of her career to developing programs and incentives to attract more women and BIPOC students to osteopathic medicine.Ross-Lee.JPG

“At each step in my career, there was always someone who reached out and said, ‘Give that girl a chance.’ So what I have always tried to do is to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’ll give you a chance,’” she said.

“I’ve been able to watch how women, especially, have grown in our profession,” Ross-Lee said. “Back when I started, less than two percent of doctors were women. There was even a reluctance on the part of female patients to see female doctors. A lot of it has to do with the social construct; we’re more comfortable now with women working in general.” Indeed: this year, MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine boasts a student body that is 58 percent women.

Ross-Lee is particularly proud of her work with AOA’s Health Policy Fellowship Program, in which she cultivated the field’s future leaders for more than two decades. She considers osteopathic medicine’s mind-body-spirit philosophy to be fundamentally more inclusive than that of allopathic medicine, which she noted has a history of bias toward women and racial minorities. She designed the Heath Policy Fellowship Program’s methodology to mimic osteopathic medicine’s inclusivity.

“Each fellowship class [of 12 people] was diverse in terms of race, gender, geography and specialty, and we had graduates planted everywhere,” she said. “It became the bench for osteopathic medicine, and that bench has contributed and grown the profession by establishing new osteopathic medical schools.”

Today, part of Ross-Lee’s focus is expanding diversity in the leadership ranks of the medical field. She finds a phrase that has entered the zeitgeist—“imposter syndrome”—to be highly offensive because it attempts to make those who are the recipient of bias responsible for it.

“Progress has been made, but we have to be conscious not to own the problem of those who challenge diversity,” she explained. “You’re not the imposter—that’s their problem. If you’re made to feel you don’t belong, it’s not you. It’s them. Let me assure you, you do belong!”

Ross-Lee would also like to see diversity and inclusion reframed as a measure of excellence rather than a quantitative measure.

“We can’t be excellent in health care without diversity because we live in a multicultural society,” she added. “We need to value diversity or we won’t be able to solve population health problems.”

Thank you again Dr. Ross-Lee for all you do, and Go Green!

Andy Amalfitano