Assistant Dean to Reflect on Medical School Diversity

Apr. 4, 2016

University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry assistant dean for Medical Education and Student Affairs Brenda D. Lee, M.Ed., still remembers a phone call she received from a distraught colleague 25 years ago.

Her friend was an accomplished psychologist settling into a senior level position at a major university, and had been trying to place an order for an office chair with the department’s office manager. Selecting a chair from a catalog of options would seem like a simple action – except for the fact that he was black.

“Back in those days, there was a hierarchy to the chairs in professional office settings,” says Lee. “There were armless chairs for secretaries, standard office chairs, and high-backed executive chairs. After the office manager declined his requests five times, she finally explained to him, ‘You can’t have a high-backed chair.”

All these years later, the experience still resonates with her as an example of the type of subtle discrimination that can often cause the most damage.

“Most people can recognize gross acts of meanness, but it’s the little things that destroy and eat away at a person,” she says. “This man was so upset, and there was no one within his own institution he could turn to.”

At 12 noon on Tuesday, April 5, Lee will share these and other experiences from her nearly 40-year career in medical education as keynote speaker for the 5th annual Tana Grady-Weliky, M.D. Lecture in The School of Nursing auditorium.  Dr. Grady-Weliky was a former senior associate dean for Education and an expert in medical student education and women’s mental health. This is the only SMD endowed lectureship dedicated to women and diversity in medicine.

Twenty-nine years of Lee’s career have been devoted to the School of Medicine and Dentistry since being recruited from the administrative offices of Harvard Medical School in 1987 by the late Jules Cohen, M.D., who was then senior associate dean for Medical Education. At the UR, she has mentored countless medical students across all backgrounds and ethnicities, and provided crucial perspective and guidance to residents and faculty.

“Brenda has the ability to empower students at all levels to overcome obstacles, realize their potential and accomplish great things,” says David R. Lambert, M.D., senior associate dean for Medical Student Education. “With courage, humility and strong ideals, and at times 'tough love,' she has helped create an open and welcoming culture for our school, and has created a path for others to follow.”

As Lee prepares for retirement later this spring, she says she has been proud to be a part of the significant progress the medical school has made in building a more diverse student body, and applauds the renewed efforts across the medical center to create a more affirming environment where students of color not only want to learn, but want to stay to build their practices, teach, and conduct research.

“We have definitely made many positive inroads,” she says, since the first African-American student was accepted to the school 75 years ago.  “But do we still have a long way to go? Absolutely. Right now, we are in the middle of the most visible University-wide diversity effort that I’ve seen since I started here. But if we’re going to be serious about making this a place where everyone feels welcomed, affirmed, and comfortable living, working and learning, then it requires us to first and foremost understand the experiences of the people who face challenges.”

An engaging speaker, Lee will present examples of various experiences she and others have encountered within the school and medical center over the years and use them as an opportunity for the audience to reflect on how they might respond, and how they believe an academic institution should respond.

She also will discuss the medical school’s model, which has proven to be successful at attracting students of color—particularly U.S.-born third-generation black male students, who have been declining in number at medical schools across the country.

“What I think we’re doing right as an administrative team is that when we learn about discriminatory incidents that impact medical students, we have a collaborative process, a safe place for them to come, and we have a process for responding,” she says. “We’re very intentionally closing the loop when things happen. But there are still areas we need to work on across the medical center if we are truly going to ‘walk the talk’ as a welcoming organization, where medical students of all cultures and backgrounds will want to grow as faculty and establish their careers.”

Lee is first to acknowledge the leadership of the dean for Medical Student Education, David Lambert, M.D., and the teamwork of the four other advisory deans and Adrienne Morgan, PhD, who directs the URMC Center for Community Health, Education and Diversity, for their work in nurturing the school’s culture. But in talking with the students, it is impossible not to realize the enormous influence Lee has had on their lives and career paths.

“From day one, Dean Lee challenged us to build a community and to think bigger than ourselves,” says David Paul, who will earn his medical degree in May and begin his Neurosurgery residency at the UR.  “With her guidance, we have built a strong support system that includes medical students, residents, alumni, and faculty members, and together this will continue to propel us forward. She taught us that you can’t do it alone.”

In her talk, Lee will also pull directly from her own journey as a black professional woman. A child of working-class, high-school-educated parents, she graduated from Rush-Henrietta High School in 1968, and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s degree in Education from Antioch University.

“I left Rochester, never to come back again,” she says, until Dr. Cohen recruited her from Harvard, making her an offer—to become an assistant dean—that she knew might never open up for her elsewhere. “But the irony of the process was that I was recruited with a lot of fanfare, and while there were clearly people who were excited about it, there were some who were not. The first day I showed up, the person who I was going to be working with directly wouldn’t speak with me. But I resolved not to internalize it, but rather just carve out my responsibilities and move forward the best I could. That went on for four or five months, until one day, that person appeared in my office and apologized for the way they’d been acting. And we actually went on to become great colleagues. But not everyone has the capacity to do that.”

Lee credits her parents with teaching her a very important lesson when she was young: that not everything is fair.

“We were told that life is not only unfair, but it’s rough, tough and unfair. But knowing this reality, the only thing you can do is push forward. Figure it out. You may have someone who doesn’t like you, but you’re still going to have to figure out how to function. That’s the model I grew up with—that there is no room for excuses. It was very supportive, but grounded in reality. You can’t make excuses, and that’s one thing that I’ve tried to reinforce with students in general here—and particularly students of color—as well as trainees, and fellows, and faculty colleagues. I feel like that’s what I’m called to do.”

Faculty, staff, residents, fellows, students and the community are welcome to attend her talk.  To register, contact grace_fuller A reception will follow in the School of Nursing auditorium.