CoP’s Response to Social Unrest

2020 was a challenging year for all of us. COVID-19 altered our lives in so many ways. But the pandemic has not been the only tragedy that our society has faced in last year. There also has been social unrest brought on by the continued racial injustices plaguing American society. As a result, there have been much needed conversations taking place around the subjects of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

If we are honest with ourselves, these are conversations that should have taken place years ago. What we are seeing is not a new phenomenon or unique. Before the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor, there were the untimely – and unnecessary deaths – of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. Sadly, you could say it is the “same story, different year.”

The topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion are important ones at an institution of higher learning, especially at the state’s flagship institution. The University of Georgia is considered a leader in the state, national, and even international arenas. But following the recognition of the 60th anniversary of desegregation, which honored the legacies of Hamilton Holmes (BS ’63) and Charlayne Hunter-Gault (ABJ ’63), is the realization that there is still much work to be done to make our university, not just a diverse institution, but even more importantly, an equitable and inclusive one.

The College of Pharmacy has its own desegregation trailblazer. In 1970, William Robie III became the first African-American student to graduate from the College of Pharmacy. Robie’s story is one that has become quite familiar at the College. Annually, Dr. Vivia Hill-Silcott, the Director of Diversity Programs and Academic Support, has Robie speak to CoP students about his experience. And it is quite the story.

Fifty years following Robie’s graduation, the College of Pharmacy is still working towards breaking down barriers and embracing diversity. Two of our deans have played an integral role in doing this. Dr. Stuart Feldman served as dean between ­­­1992-2000. Feldman is credited with hiring the first African-American faculty member, Dr. Marie Chisholm-Burns ’92, ’93, now Dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee. It was during Feldman’s tenure that the UGA Chapter of the Student National Pharmaceutical Association (SNPhA) was established. SNPhA is an educational service association of pharmacy students who are concerned about the profession of pharmacy, healthcare issues, and the poor minority representation in these areas. SNPhA has remained one of the College’s most active and impactful student organizations.

Then, during the tenure of Dr. Svein Øie, 2000-2018, the College created a position to focus on strengthening diversity initiatives and programs. For the past 15 years, Dr. Vivia Hill-Silcott has served as the College’s leader in diversity programming. A great example of Hill-Silcott’s contributions to the College are recent town hall conversations. The first of these, back in June, was billed as a ‘courageous conversation’ to explore feelings around Black Lives Matter and racism in policing. In October, the College hosted a virtual discussion entitled, In a Time of Racial Injustice, We are All in this Together.

A specific initiative that has annually brought the likes of Robie, Feldman, and Hill-Silcott together is the Stuart Feldman Summer Institute. Through the support of Robie, Feldman, and the College, Hill-Silcott hosts a six-day summer program that exposes high school students to the many career opportunities that are available in the pharmacy profession. The program was created in 2010 to engage economically disadvantaged high school students who had a strong aptitude in math and science. This program would not be possible without generous philanthropic support of Robie and Feldman.

Town halls and summer institutes are wonderful, but it is not enough to combat systemic racism. What is the role of a pharmacy school in this domain? It is a valid question. In 2017, the National Academy of Medicine published Perspectives on Health Equity and Social Determinants of Health, in which the authors suggested that further research was necessary to explore the impact of structural racism and implicit bias on health and healthcare delivery. Furthermore, according to the 2019 National Pharmacist Association Workforce Study, Black pharmacists represent only 4.9 percent of the profession. These are uncomfortable and disturbing findings that deserve being addressed, especially as a flagship institution.

This year, the UGA College of Pharmacy has been entrenched in the development of the 2025 Strategic Plan. This process has run parallel to the University’s drafting of a new document as well. The themes of diversity, equity, inclusion, and health disparities figure prominently in the College of Pharmacy’s plan. A primary reason for this focus is that, in Georgia, although racial and ethnic minorities account for one-third of the population, their disease burden is significantly higher, with health disparities recorded in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, stroke and HIV/AIDS health outcomes. The role of a pharmacist can figure prominently in improving these outcomes.

Dr. Henry Young – newly-named Department Head of Clinical and Administrative Pharmacy and the Kroger Endowed Professor in Community Pharmacy – is a great example of how the College is tackling the challenge of health disparities throughout Georgia. Through his research, Young partners with communities across the state to improve health outcomes. When asked why he feels so strongly about his work he shared, “As a pharmacy school, our purpose is to educate the next generation of pharmacists and to also make an impact on the overall health and well-being of all members of our society. And what health disparities shows us is that not all citizens start off on an equal footing.”

Dr. Young also is serving on President Jere Morehead’s task force on race, ethnicity, and community. This group is examining issues related to race, ethnicity, and community at UGA, with the goal of developing concrete recommendations that can be implemented during the coming academic year to improve the campus culture and strengthen the learning environment on campus. Again, the College is mirroring this effort by looking at how diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can be bolstered in our own school.

Our country has not been plagued with a pandemic; it has faced the atrocities of social injustices and unrest.  While it would have been easy to sit back and be quiet during these turbulent times, leaders at the College of Pharmacy chose to take a stand and issue statements in support of issues surrounding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “We believe we must respond timely and appropriately to social justice issues, current events, and other concerns that adversely affect our community and society. Not only is it our duty; it is simply the right thing to do.”  Statements were issued in support of “Black Lives Matter,” at the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, and following violent acts against members of the Asian community.  Read these statements here.

It is clear that the UGA College of Pharmacy is committed to creating a more diverse and inclusive learning environment. There is still much work to be done, however. Looking ahead let us hope we embrace the challenge, learn from our shared history, and become a leader in improving health outcomes and creating a more inclusive community for all. Because everyone benefits when many identities are present.