A Cultural Shift is Necessary for Sustained Anti-Racism Efforts at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

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Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Allan Rosenfield Building

A cultural shift is needed for the Department of Health Policy and Management to Engage in Anti-Racism Efforts at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Despite school-wide initiatives to promote anti-racist theory and praxis in Public Health, the Department of Health Policy and Management (HPM) has yet to acknowledge a problematic culture that it will continue to perpetuate.

Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, located within the community of Washington Heights, adorns its externally-facing media with messaging of equity and inclusion. In the Core, the Public Health degree program stresses the importance of the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), and encourages us to consider these as fundamental causes of disease. The Department of Health Policy and Management cites the following mission statement on their website:

To advance theory and practice throughout the healthcare industry and to produce a more equitable and more efficient health system. This mission is fulfilled through research and education focused on the development, implementation, and evaluation of health policies and the administrative functioning of health systems and organizations.

It may seem that the Department integrates principles of equity, but upon further investigation, the dichotomy of equity and efficiency is made clear in the Department’s strides to preserve the status-quo in healthcare. Michael Sparer — Department Chair — and Rebecca Sale — Director of Education — have yet to take significant action in hiring professors of color, in adopting anti-racist policy, nor in promoting intersectionality and cultural humility. If we are not adequately trained in cultural humility, how can we be successful policy leaders and managers in the field?

A predominantly cis-white heterosexual male faculty leaves many students unable to see themselves in the classroom. In my personal experience, it has been particularly difficult to navigate my queer identity in this space. I recognize the privilege that I hold for being a white student in a predominantly white institution, and because of this privilege I must assert that it is a blindspot that most HPM faculty do not have intrinsic knowledge of navigating the professional space as a member of a marginalized minority community.

The Department requires all students to enroll in a “Professional Development” course — which intends to teach basic skills of cover letter writing, resume review, and communications. Besides these useful basics that I already learned in undergrad, what I got out of the course was a reinforcement of many of the biased professionalism standards that plague US institutions and perpetuate inequity. Instead of securing faculty with intersectional frameworks who could help students navigate their identities in the workplace, the Department asserts conservative values, which left this queer student feeling disempowered and out-of-place. While the Department has shown success in enrolling a diverse student-body, most professors are not proficient in the nuanced knowledge needed to engage with marginalized students. As an Ivy League institution, Columbia has the ability to set the tone for industry leaders — but as it stands — the school would rather remain complicit.

Todd Richter, an Adjunct professor, was publicly accused of sexually assaulting an intern in an article written by renowned Columbia Alumni, William D. Cohan. The department’s prioritization of healthcare business moguls over faculty with an overt commitment to anti-racism and equity is telling. Is the department committed to bringing theory to practice, or is the Department truly committed to preserving the status-quo? Rather than highlighting professors with a public history of sexual misconduct, the Department should showcase faculty with a deeply demonstrated commitment to anti-racism. While leadership claims to value eclectic perspectives, it continues networking with those who are more concerned with profit, rather than faculty with a multi-disciplinary track-record in promoting equity in healthcare.

Furthermore, the department puts onus on students of color to conduct the anti-racist work for which high-level administrators should be responsible. It must be recognized that these students are engaging in incredible efforts, but why should unpaid, or practically unpaid, students hold the burden of implementing anti-racist practices in the department? Students have enough on their plate. Moreover, with most students in the school enrolled in two-year degree programs, the longevity of these initiatives is called into question.

Both internally to the student body and externally to the community of Washington Heights, HPM has a lot of work to do. Rather than promoting the eclectic knowledge needed to engage in anti-racist theory and praxis, HPM has demonstrated a commitment to remaining silent on oppressive and violent behaviors, as exemplified by their laissez-faire handling of Todd Richters’ allegations of sexual misconduct. HPM has an abundance of resources, yet does not take sufficient action to implement long-term solutions to promote an intersectional department culture. As a school taking up space within a community of color, we must reaffirm our commitment to improving social determinants of health, which involves adopting stringent departmental policy to denounce racism and sexual misconduct.

One action item that the department is supposed to take from FORWARD, an anti-racist initiative at Mailman, is to redesign its curriculum to promote anti-racist theory and praxis in public health. It seems incongruent that Mailman promotes this ideology, yet HPM Leadership defends faculty, like Todd Richter, who perpetuate misogyny in the workplace. If HPM seeks to integrate Columbia’s commitment to anti-racism, they must drastically alter their culture and curriculum without burdening students. Although the anti-racist initiatives introduced are a nice gesture, there is a greater redesign needed to remedy the toxic-culture that HPM has perpetuated; the student body needs action.

Suggested resources from Tufts University Department of Community Health Website:

  1. Anti-racism resources for white people
  2. Resources for self-care for Black individuals and POC
  3. How to Be an Anti-Racist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
  4. Anti-racism resources for all ages

Jonathan Berger is a second-year M.P.H. candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management, pursuing a certificate in the Health of an Aging Society. Berger received his B.A. from Tufts University, where he double-majored in Community Health and Spanish.

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Jonathan C. Berger is an M.P.H. Candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

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