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When diversity efforts erase the past

Nearly every college or university today is obsessed with the concept of “diversity,” a vague term that usually has something to do with elevating nonwhite individuals, in varying ways, within an institution. As one professor recently discovered, it is also sometimes used as an excuse to paper over the past.

Writing at The Boston Globe, Harvard medical school professor (and former dean) Jeffrey Flier writes of visiting an instructional auditorium at Brigham and Women’s Hospital near Harvard’s campus. In that auditorium, Flier writes, “thirty-one oil portraits of medical and scientific leaders” used to adorn the walls. Recently, however, Flier arrived to find all of the portraits removed.

The portraits had been stripped from the walls “as part of a diversity initiative.” (As Flier dryly notes: “What I experienced was not diversity, but sterility.”)

The CEO of the hospital had previously “concluded that removing the portraits would foster a more welcoming environment for the increasingly diverse community of employees, students, trainees, and faculty.” The portraits disappeared “overnight,” Flier writes.

The professor spoke to several individuals while visiting the hospital; they admitted to being sad about the disappearance of the portraits, but “looking around to ensure they weren’t overheard, they said discussion was ‘no longer possible’.”

From the article:

Reactions to removal of the…portraits varied. Some who couldn’t decouple the portraits from prior exclusion of women and minorities cheered.

Others supported the portraits as a means to recognize past accomplishments, despite the subjects living at a time of limited opportunities for women and minorities. But voicing such views today is not without risk. As I discovered [after posting about it on Twitter], discussion is less likely when those questioning the change are probably going to be characterized as members of a white patriarchy indifferent to concerns of women and minorities.

My tweet inspired discussion and reflection. I concluded that, despite some valid concerns, removing all the portraits from this historic amphitheater — in this way — was a mistake. Celebrating diversity doesn’t require erasing or suppressing the memories of those who contributed greatly to the institution and the profession — people whose work continues to have impact today.

Noting that significant progress has been made in the days since the portraits were painted—far greater opportunities abound for women and nonwhites—Flier writes: “We should seek to learn from this story of substantial progress — rather than hide it from view.”

Read the article here.

MORE: Teaching hospital to take down portraits of prestigious white male doctors

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