Joe Nathan column: U of M Medical School sending flawed, unfortunate messages

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The University of Minnesota's billboard in St. Paul. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

The University of Minnesota’s billboard in St. Paul. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

A University of Minnesota Medical School advertising campaign is sending flawed, unfortunate messages.

The university hopes to encourage students to apply to medical school, increase public support and generate more money.

However, as St. Paul interim Superintendent John Thein told me via email last week, “We expect better.”

My concerns started when a female University of Minnesota Medical School graduate and a practicing physician pointed out a U of M billboard across the street from Children’s Hospital in St. Paul. It proclaims, “Our graduates become your doctors.” One doctor is pictured: a white male.

There’s nothing wrong with showing a white man, university graduate and doctor. But that billboard easily also could have shown several university graduates-doctors, male and female, representing different races and communities.

I showed a picture of the billboard to Lee-Ann Stephens, 2006 Minnesota Teacher of the Year who works in the St. Louis Park Public Schools. Stephens is African-American. She responded: “This billboard is sending an unintentional message that doctors are white males; therefore, there is no need for anyone other than a white male to apply to the U of M Medical School. Although that may not be the intent, it’s the impact that really matters. This is steeped in structural racism. St. Paul is a diverse community and this mono-racial billboard doesn’t honor the beauty of that diversity at all.”

Stephens explained that she showed the billboard to one of her black female students who wants to be a doctor. “She said that it tells her that she can’t be a doctor. This young lady is earning her IB diploma, takes all AP and IB classes, has a 3.93 (GPA) and is heavily involved in the school’s community. That’s the message that this accomplished teen is receiving,” Stephens said.

Thein, who is white, wrote: “The U of M is sending the wrong message to our students, their parents and the larger community. I know the U of M is focusing on recruiting people of color to their programs. … A picture is worth a million words.”

In an email statement to me, Ann Aronson, the University’s chief marketing officer, wrote, “The Medical School’s current advertising proudly reflects the diverse and inclusive medical school community.” University officials sent me four more pictures that are being used on billboards, light rail and digital ads. Two include women. All four contain pictures of people of color – all Asian-American.

I asked university officials several times why American Indian, African-American, or Hispanic or Latino doctors weren’t depicted. They did not respond by this column’s deadline.

Louis Porter II, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, did respond. He wrote: “By now, it should be obvious to those doing marketing and advertising that diversity and inclusion are essential to their work. Yet, a casual look at many ads still reveals way too many pictures that fail to reflect the increasing numbers of people of color and indigenous people now populating this state and entering virtually all fields. For many years, research has shown the dangers of subtle messages that put limits on people and what they can achieve. Intentionality is critical.”

Sia Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, explained: “Too often, we see young people of color not even considering pursuing these professional careers because of too few examples of people, particularly women, of color achieving success around them. As institutions, the responsibility is ours to encourage young people of color to pursue these STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers until there comes such a time that they are surrounded by physicians, scientists and engineers that reflect their own experiences.”

One positive step toward this time is a University of Minnesota mentorship program involving high school students and some of the university’s medical students. (More information about that is here: And Naomi McDonald, Medical School communications director, and who is African-American, told me that future billboards will be more diverse.

I hope this happens. I think U of M officials also should ask a diverse group of high school educators and students to help them plan outreach campaigns. As Thein said, “We expect better.”


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].


One Response to Joe Nathan column: U of M Medical School sending flawed, unfortunate messages

  1. The University’s glittering generalities, crisis management and PR buzzwords, prove they know their jargon, but, rhetoric aside: are missing the point.

    The first hint is Ms. Aronson’s “proud” declaration of the university’s supposed diversity, rather than acknowledge of situational reality of stakeholders. The second is her 38-person Marcomm team made up of 35 to 37 white staff.

    The third is that Mr. Nathan’s piece echo concerns raised in a recent letter to UMN’s Board of Regents (ten, or 80%, of whom are white) got the same boiler-plate response from Ms. Aronson–which, according to the data, is wrong.

    For billboard diversity, Aronson points out three Asians and one woman Aronson says is an immigrant–but who is so blond she could be a descendant of Minnesota’s Norwegian settlers. No Black, Native American or Latino people. No evident Muslims, no Jews, either. The 7% of students in its Twin Cities med school who are Latino, Black or First Nation (according to the U’s Office of Institutional Research) are nowhere near representive of census numbers for the same groups in the larger area, calculated at 30% back in 2010 and projected to increase. Add Duluth, their other med school campus, and they still fall short of even half of the 18.5% of people of color in what Aronson calls it’s ‘broader communities.’

    Now, she might note the U’s diversity and equity department features several people of color. But likely wouldn’t note that the U’s 97 health and science experts available to “assist media,” don’t. Less than 3% are visibly of color. Even the half-dozen or so Asian experts underrepresent both the school’s and the broader community’s demographics. It doesn’t get much better when you include all U students. And gets worse when you factor in its nearly 20,000 employees.

    Thus, cheery picking only positive examples, like citing a few Asian people or a white immigrant as proof of your diversity, is like saying you black neighbors to prove you’re not racist. Research in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology: Permission to be prejudiced: Legitimacy credits in evaluation of advertisements even quanitifies this strain of confirmation bias.

    Inclusive organizations don’t handle complaints with smoke-and-mirrors defenses that deny non-conforming realities. “The University of Minnesota strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas,” says Aronson, “in an environment that is conscious of and responsive to the needs of the many communities it serves.” Those well-crafted words sound good in theory. But, judging from this all, are missing in practice.

    Attempts by Mr. Nathan and others to engage an “open exchange of ideas” have failed to elicit UMN’s consciousness. Absent are actions “responsive to the needs of many.” The message, instead, has been that if you don’t see people of color on the med school’s billboards or don’t experience its environment as inclusive, you, not the University of Minnesota, are who’s missing something.

    Why? Not because it’s true. Just because the U says so.

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