ADEA to Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Historic Education-wide Climate Assessment Survey

By LaShell Stratton-Childers, ADEA Senior Editor

Though diversity and inclusion are important topics in dental education, making them a priority on campuses and within the curricula remains a challenge for many dental schools and allied dental programs.

“The outcome of the diversity of our student body represents the extent to which we made it a priority,” said Dennis A. Mitchell, D.D.S., M.P.H., Co-Chair of ADEA Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee (ADEA DIAC), a ADEA Collaborative on Dental Education Climate Assessment (ADEA CDECA) representative and Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Professor at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (Columbia CDM). “I think that we’re desperately lacking in these areas, and we have relied as a profession on the two historically black colleges that have dental schools and the University of Puerto Rico to represent significant parts of the diversity of our student body. We’ve relied on them for almost a century.

He added that if diversity and inclusion were a priority, “you would see in our accreditation standards for dental education a mandatory requirement of racial, ethnic and other diversity across dental schools.”


In response to this disconnect, ADEA is launching a momentous dental education-wide climate assessment survey that will collect baseline data on diversity, equity and inclusion at U.S. and Canadian dental schools and allied dental programs. This inaugural climate assessment is a crucial step in assisting all institutions with measuring perceptions regarding the campus climate as one supportive of inclusion, equality and equitable outcomes for all stakeholders.

ADEA is partnering with Nonprofit HR, a consulting group with offices in Washington, DC, and San Francisco, to conduct the climate assessment survey, which will include all 78 dental schools and 800+ allied dental programs in the United States and Canada. ADEA and Nonprofit HR will also work with the ADEA CDECA and other key stakeholders to develop the survey instrument during the summer and fall 2021. Tentative plans for survey implementation are early spring 2022 and final climate assessment results will be available in fall 2022.

“This project underscores ADEA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and its responsibility and pledge to help all dental schools and dental education programs develop a better understanding of today’s landscape,” said ADEA President and CEO Karen P. West, D.M.D., M.P.H. “With the data we will collect, dental schools and programs will have valuable insights on the steps they can take to further promote inclusion, diversity and a strong sense of belonging for everyone.”

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A Necessary Step Forward

Dental faculty, particularly those who have participated in the research and development of the climate assessment survey, said a project like this has been a long time coming.

“For many decades, we have heard first- and secondhand accounts of microaggressions, macroaggressions and lack of cultural sensitivities within work environments in general, and dental education specifically,” said Keith A. Mays, Ph.D., D.D.S., M.S., Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors and Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. “As a faculty member and administrator, I experience too many off-the-record conversations about racial discrimination, sexual harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation. This makes me believe we may not fully understand how many individuals within our institutions are impacted. Therefore, the ADEA climate assessment survey is an important step to further support healing and well-being in dental institutions.”

In addition to witnessing inequities at some dental schools and allied dental programs, ADEA members have also witnessed “access to diversity and access to health care by diverse populations lessen with the years,” said Ana N. López, D.M.D., M.P.H., FACD, FICD, Co-Chair of ADEA DIAC, CDECA representative and Professor and former Dean at the University of Puerto Rico School of Dental Medicine (UPR SDM). “There has been an outcry from health care professionals, people of color and people that are concerned about what’s happening…. Through many opportunities like the ones that ADEA has provided us as practitioners and professors in the different dental schools, we have learned more about what’s been going on in this country and Canada, and we had to have a call to action.”

The climate study will include questions on well-being and engagement among specific demographic groups. Collecting baseline data will allow dental schools and allied dental programs to evaluate their strengths and identify areas for improvement related to inclusion and diversity efforts and creating and sustaining a humanistic environment. Additionally, the climate assessment data will serve as an important tool in guiding new and enhanced strategic initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion in dental education.

Including a tool that will help guide these initiatives and possible next steps for dental schools and allied dental programs is vital, Dr. Mays said.

“As a leader, it is challenging when people present problems without also providing possible solutions,” he said. “For ADEA to present only the challenges and observations would not really address the magnitude of current events, and limit institutions’ ability foster significant change. The social justice movement that gained greater momentum last year after the tragic events in Minneapolis call us to go beyond stating only the problem. As oral health professionals, we should contribute leadership that advocates and becomes the change we would like to see. I also believe that what an organization measures, it does, so providing examples of measurable actions step is critically important.”

Some dental schools and allied dental programs have already participated in climate studies at the campus level. However, one of the ADEA climate assessment’s major benefits will be the availability of comparative aggregated data specific to dental schools and allied dental programs, which has been unavailable for schools and programs participating solely in university/campus assessments. Individualized confidential customized reports and data tables will be available to assist in diversity and strategic planning at the school and program level.

Even those who helped developed the survey are interested in seeing what the data says about their own institutions, how they compare nationally and what their respective dental schools will do with this important information.

“I hope that in my dental school and in my programs we have eye-opening moments because sometimes we think that we have everything in place, and everything is working fine and there’s no need for change, and not everyone is on the same page,” Dr. López said. She gave the example of a past UPR SDM Chancellor and Dean who said “‘There is no problem in our school because we are very diverse. Women are in the leadership ladder, and we’ve had women deans,’ and then I told him, ‘Listen. How long has our school been a dental school? We’ve been 63 going to 64 years, and we’ve only had two women deans.’ Politics plays a lot into this. Gender issues play a lot, too,” she said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mitchell is hoping the survey will allow Columbia CDM to begin objectively assessing its existing admissions requirements and the necessity of standardized testing. “I think we are afraid as a profession to take that on. It is very convenient for us to sort of weed out and separate candidates based on our standardized testing—our DAT testing in particular,” he said. “And there are some schools that really rely upon that. Columbia is one of those schools and it is something I’ve been working on for a decade, unsuccessfully, because we are particularly proud of the mean DAT score of our class.”

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A Deliberative, Collaborative Preparation Process

The climate assessment survey is the culmination of more than a year of collaborative work and research conducted by ADEA staff, ADEA DIAC and ADEA CDECA, which consists of six independent researchers from four ADEA member dental schools (University of Michigan School of Dentistry; University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry; Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry; and University of Indiana School of Dentistry), a representative of the Academy for Advancing Leadership, representatives from the ADEA DIAC and ADEA staff.

Prior to deciding to initiate the study, ADEA, through the ADEA CDECA, spent several months examining postsecondary and health professions climate assessment literature. They also gathered and analyzed information from faculty, staff, students and administrators by conducting six surveys and two sets of focus groups. The data collected focused on three areas: 1) past climate survey activities at dental schools and allied dental programs, 2) dental school and allied dental program perceptions and considerations concerning a future ADEA-led dental education-wide climate study and 3) the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement on the cultural climate for all members of our communities and climate-related activities. Based on all the information gathered, ADEA CDECA recommended ADEA contract with an external climate survey consultant group to conduct a dental education-wide survey for all U.S. and Canadian dental schools and allied dental programs.

In December 2020, ADEA staff began an RFP process, during which they invited vendors to submit a proposal to develop, administer and analyze data for a dental education-wide climate survey. ADEA selected Nonprofit HR as its vendor.

According to Nonprofit HR, prior to being selected by ADEA, the company completed several diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and climate assessment projects with nonprofits across various mission types and large multinational organizations. The company has also conducted comprehensive internal and external equity assessments for multiple clients within the medical sector with a focus on the systems and processes that support the human resources lifecycle and patient care outcomes, in addition to collecting data to better understand external stakeholder engagements. Through those projects, Nonprofit HR has completed complex external analysis involving multiple stakeholders including the scientific community, corporate partners, volunteers and constituents receiving services.

Lisa Brown Alexander, Founder and CEO of Nonprofit HR, said she was looking forward to this project with ADEA. “Nonprofit HR deeply values and prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion and are honored to partner with ADEA for such a monumental, timely and critical initiative,” she said. “We are attuned to the strength and value that a stronger concentration on DEI can bring to every organization in the dental education community. And we are in tune with the richness of experience and perspective that a diverse and equitable workforce brings to the academic community across North America.”

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A Rallying Call

Many of those involved with the development of the survey hope it will be a step forward for the dental education community in embracing diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We should be moving into action. We should have already been able to jump into action after the murder of George Floyd more than a year ago,” Dr. Mitchell said. “But we weren’t able to jump into action and we’re still now trying to assess. We’ve already lost a year of action, which is why it is important that we include next steps and measurable outcomes in any survey that we put forward.”

Dr. López called on the dental education community to welcome this initiative.

“Now is our time to take action, to participate, to take it seriously, and to answer those questions with our hearts, with our minds and our own experiences,” she said. “We have to be committed to make this change happen and that only happens when we all engage and do what we have to do and answer those surveys.” 

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