Dr. Valerie Romero-Leggott
Dr. Valerie Romero-Leggott, Vice Chancellor for Diversity

The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center has made significant strides in increasing the diversity of its academic faculty in the wake of a two-year mentoring program, a new report has found.

In the UNM School of Medicine, 27 percent of the faculty were faculty of color in 2016, as opposed to just 16 percent in 2002, according the status report presented Tuesday at a luncheon recognizing the participants in a pilot project for Advancing Institutional Mentoring Excellence (AIME).

The status report also found that 53 percent of tenure-track associate professors are faculty of color, as are 46 percent of tenure-track assistant professors. And overall, 43 percent of all tenure track faculty were female in 2016, compared to 30 percent in 2002.

The AIME mentoring program was crafted under the guidance of Valerie Romero-Leggott, MD, vice chancellor for diversity, and Margaret Montoya, an emerita professor at the UNM School of Law and a visiting professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine.

“This is a time in our country when we’re really grappling with diversity and race issues,” Romero-Leggott said. “Our greatest strengths will always be the diversity of our people.”

The AIME project emerged from a years-long effort to improve faculty diversity at the Health Sciences Center.

“Back in 2012 we changed our strategic plan and vision as an institution and decided that we would make more progress in health and health equity than any other institution,” said Richard S. Larson, MD, PhD, the Health Sciences Center’s executive vice chancellor.

“At the same time, we wanted the faculty to reflect the state’s diversity,” he said. Mentoring improves a faculty member’s chances of success, which is the best predictor of whether they will stay at the university, Larson added.

The program paired 14 faculty members of color with 24 mentors with the aim of helping them rise into senior leadership positions.

Martha McGrew, MD, the School of Medicine’s executive vice dean, told of how much she learned from the experience of mentoring Karissa Culbreath, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology.

McGrew defined the mentor’s primary role as “sponsoring” their mentee and helping them to identify opportunities. “Be a sponsor – really be active with your mentee,” she urged her fellow mentors. “Be vulnerable. We’re used to being experts, but be vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable.”

Culbreath described the experience as “incredibly valuable.” Conversations with mentors and mentees ‘Created some of the most honest conversation regarding race and academic life that I have ever experienced,” she said. “It was truly invigorating to know that the institution as willing to have the difficult conversations necessary to create an inclusive and empowering environment for faculty of color.”

Going forward, the status report recommended that the Health Sciences Center “fine-tune” its employment practices to increase the recruitment and hiring of Native American and African American faculty, whose numbers remain low.

The report also suggested expanding existing mentoring programs and create toolkits based on the AIME curriculum to help facilitate discussions about cross-cultural communication, identity, cognitive diversity and unconscious bias.

“We’re continuing to see what the next evolution of AIME will be at the institution,” Romero-Leggott said.