Rollins commits anew to diversity, equity, and inclusion

Anti-racist agenda

abstract illustration showing racially diverse faces

The killing of George Floyd brought the horror of racism into sharper focus across the nation. Even institutions that have striven to promote social justice and equity within their walls recognized they were being called to do more. Rollins is no exception.

“Public health by its very nature is dedicated to social justice and ending health inequities,” says Dean James Curran. “As a school, we have always been guided by these principles. But the events of the past year have pushed us to do more. We are redoubling our efforts to develop a plan of action that persistently works against racism and white supremacy.”

Toward that end, Rollins has created a new position, assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Dr. Joanne McGriff, assistant professor of global health and former associate director of the Center for Global Safe WASH, has assumed the post, charged with creating an infrastructure to ensure the school is moving forward to dismantle any form of racism. More specifically, she will advise faculty search committees; develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion plan at Rollins; work to ensure diverse student selection and recruitment efforts; support inclusive teaching practices; and measure Rollins’ progress on these efforts through regular data collection and reporting.

“I am passionate about creating a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says McGriff. “Given our unique location within the ‘Civil Rights Capital’ of the nation, I believe we are well positioned to partner with other diverse institutions to improve DEI conditions within our school and serve as a model to other public health schools who are seeking to make similar changes.”

McGriff’s first order of business has been to meet with all the stakeholders—faculty, staff, and students, including a group of Black students who submitted a letter during the summer expressing concerns about the climate within the school. Lul Mohamud, a second-year MPH student and one of the authors of the letter, reflects, “My main goal in writing the letter was to make sure the Rollins faculty, staff, and students—the entire community—is not only cognizant of what is going on, but understands they are not on the sidelines. They are active participants in the system, whether it’s directly, or by being a spectator, or by being an unknowing participant.”

Joanne McGriff standing in font of a wall map in a classroom environment.

"Given our unique location within the ‘Civil Rights Capital’ of the nation, I believe we are well positioned to partner with other diverse institutions to improve DEI conditions within our school and serve as a model to other public health schools who are seeking to make similar changes."

Joanne McGriff

Mohamud and her colleagues met not only with McGriff, but also with Dean Curran, Dr. Kimberly Jacob Arriola, executive associate dean for academic affairs, Dr. Kara Robinson, associate dean for admissions and student affairs, as well as several others from senior administration. “I could feel a dedication among the people in administration we were meeting with,” says Mohamud. “People seemed truly invested. That gives me hope that what we are saying is being heard.”

McGriff confirms the students are, in fact, being heard, and heeded, but she acknowledges the effort will be a marathon, not a sprint. “We are talking about some changes that involve modifying the culture of the school,” she says. “That is something that happens over years, not days or months.”

Even so, some initiatives have already been implemented. For example, incoming students participated in cultural humility training and were required to read at least one book from a recommended list of anti-racist titles. First-year students attended the annual CDC Day virtually for a discussion of this year’s topic, “Endemic Racism during a Pandemic.” The school produced a webinar series, “Rollins Takes Action 2020,” which covered topics such as police violence and environmental injustice. And each department created a DEI committee, if they didn’t already have one, to address issues specific to their realm.  

The school already performs well in attracting students of color.  According to data from the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, Rollins ranked No. 1 in African American applicants, admissions, and matriculates in the fall 2019 admissions cycle among the top five schools of public health. When looking at all schools and programs of public health, Rollins ranked No. 2. 

“Our geographic location is part of the appeal, as well as efforts we’ve made over the years to connect with historically black universities in the Atlanta area,” says Prudence Goss, assistant dean of admissions and student affairs. “In fact, three of our deans are graduates of Spelman College—Kimberly Jacob Arriola, Kara Robinson, and myself.”

Goss and her team are doing a multiyear review of data to analyze admission practices (including how much GRE scores influence admissions), scholarship awards, and academic performance. “We want to see which students are receiving the most generous scholarships and if GRE scores actually correlate with subsequent academic performance,” says Goss. “We also need to make sure students of color feel supported once they are here.”

One student has already taken that matter into her own hands. Cherie Grant, a second-year student in behavioral, social, and health education sciences and president of the Association of Black Public Health students, started the Bridge program, a mentorship matching first- and second-year MPH students based not only on race but on academic department as well as professional and social interests. “People just need to feel comfortable in the spaces they are in,” says Grant. “The program has gotten a lot of positive feedback, so I hope it’s kept going after I graduate.”

Increasing diversity among the school’s faculty is also a top priority. Members of the several search committees that are now active have undergone unconscious bias training and are well tuned to the
issue of diversity. “I’ve been very encouraged by how many people have reached out to me wanting to know how they can do a better job in that area,” says McGriff. 

The RSPH Education Committee has formed a subcommittee to discuss anti-racism curricula, but
one new course has already been launched. Dr. Briana Woods-Jaeger, assistant professor of behavioral, social, and health education sciences, posted her new seminar class, Addressing Racism as a Public Health Issue to Promote Health Equity, for the spring semester, and it filled up almost immediately with a long waiting list. For her text, she is using a new book from the American Public Health Association, Racism—Science and Tools for the Public Health Professional—and she is inviting guest speakers to examine policies and programs that are designed to dismantle racism. “I want to not only give students an overview of racism as a driver for health inequities but also to encourage them to think about public health professionals’ role in dismantling racism,” she says. 

In the Department of Epidemiology, O. Wayne Rollins Distinguished Professor and Chair Tim Lash is overseeing drafting new competencies on racism as a public health crisis for the department’s MPH and PhD programs. “We wanted to make sure we did something with real effect,” says Lash. “One of the most powerful levers we have is setting a competency. You not only have to articulate what it is, but where it is going to be taught, and how it is going to be evaluated to show students have achieved it.”

Dean Curran and members of the school’s administration acknowledge the road ahead is long, but they are committed to making a lasting change. “The horrific events of the past year—the glaringly unequal burden of the COVID-19 pandemic and the killings of unarmed Black people by police, with the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, have laid bare the need to address racism as a public health crisis head on,” says Curran. “And that means change must start here, in the institutions that train future public health leaders. We commit to playing an active role in dismantling racism in our society.”