‘It’s terrifying’: Students say racism runs rampant at School of Nursing
In interviews with the News, students criticized outdated curriculum, offensive remarks by guest lecturers and professors and a lack of diversity among students and staff.
Even though Tayisha Saint Vil NUR ’23 has been at Yale School of Nursing for less than a semester, she already feels unsafe as a Black student at the school.
“It’s terrifying,” Saint Vil told the News. “This feels like a really hostile environment for Black and brown students to learn.”
Just two months before Saint Vil arrived on campus, the School of Nursing committed to improving that environment — and addressing the “racism that happened right here.” In a June 18 statement to the nursing school community, Dean Ann Kurth promised to be “intentional and accountable” in learning from the school’s failings and helping YSN “tap into the true ethos of our school.”
“We must recognize that without structural and institutional transformation, YSN will continue to perpetuate inequities and miss critical opportunities to fight against the health implications of racism and improve the health of all marginalized communities in the United States,” she wrote.
Kurth’s statement came one year after a professor asked a student, “Are you saying my exams are racist?” after the student expressed concerns over BIPOC retention at a town hall. The year before, a guest lecturer gave a presentation on how to spot dermatological conditions — without sharing how to identify those conditions on Black skin.
According to 19 students — and a collection of emails, instructional materials and other documents obtained by the News — those are not isolated incidents, but rather emblematic of the culture at the West Campus school.
In interviews with the News, students criticized outdated curriculum, offensive remarks by guest lecturers and professors and a lack of diversity among students and staff. They said that the administration has failed to adequately address these issues, and that institutional channels — including an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion established in 2015 — do not provide adequate recourse for student complaints. Raven Rodriguez, who was hired in 2019 as director of diversity, equity and inclusion, resigned abruptly last week, criticizing an “oppressive status quo” at the school.
Black students, said Sola Stamm NUR ’21, quickly become aware that the program is “academically and culturally” built for their white peers. They “fall through the cracks” academically and socially, she said, and the School of Nursing leaves them to fend for themselves.
More than 220 students attended a forum on Monday set up to address a student petition calling for a full-time faculty member dedicated to DEI issues. Students brought their complaints to Kurth at the forum.
“I do believe we have to do better; we can do better — despite all legitimate concerns I really am committed to seeing YSN becoming a better place,” Kurth told students at the forum.
But students told Kurth that she has not proven herself up to the task.
“It’s terrifying. This feels like a really hostile environment for Black and brown students to learn.”
—Tayisha Saint Vil NUR ’23
OUTDATED INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS
Five nursing students told the News that they were initially attracted to the school because of its social justice-oriented advertising. For example, the application requires an essay regarding students’ interpretation of the School of Nursing’s mission, “better health for all people.”
But according to Emily Brown NUR ’22, Cameron McCaugherty NUR ’22 and Saint Vil, the school’s branding is misleading.
“[The tagline] does not apply to their students in the slightest,” Brown said. “And I would even argue it doesn’t apply to our future patients, because the education that we receive is marginalizing people of color, particularly Black people and transgender folks.”
Five students cited a 2018 dermatology presentation by guest lecturer Lindita Vinca — a certified nurse practitioner invited by School of Nursing professor Deborah Fahs — that included “hundreds of slides” without “a single example of a single dermatologic condition on skin that wasn’t white,” according to Billie Campion NUR ’21. Nursing lecturer Patrice O’Neill-Wilhelm invited Vinca to deliver another lecture in 2019 — an invitation that two students criticized in interviews with the News. Fahs, O’Neill-Wilhelm and Vinca did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“If you are only trained to recognize skin conditions on white skin, they can be really easy to miss on Black skin,” Campion said. “Besides the fact that this was a huge oversight, it was a thing that never occurred to the faculty for that class … and it never occurred to them that we might want to know what a skin condition looked like on Black skin.”
Students also raised concerns about curriculum developed and delivered by faculty members themselves. Professors have taught that race is a risk factor for certain diseases — a theory that has long been contested — and failed to acknowledge the root causes of racial disparities in health outcomes, students say.
For example, professor Lisa Meland taught in her “Introduction to Pharmacology” lecture last year that the populations at greatest risk for primary hypertension include “African Americans, [and] Mexican Americans,” according to lecture slides obtained by the News.
“We’ve heard lecture after lecture listing anti-Black rhetoric, for example that being Black is a risk factor for hypertension … without any elaboration on the reasons why someone might be at higher risk,” Genevieve Lipari NUR ’22 wrote in an email to the News. “When asked to elaborate, many faculty have replied, ‘I don’t know,’ or even worse, attributed it to differences in metabolism or some other biological difference which we know has no basis because race is a social construct.”
Brown said that these so-called risk factors are actually associated with inherent racism in the health care industry — which the School of Nursing curriculum fails to acknowledge, students say.
In a video obtained by the News, nursing lecturer Patrice O’Neill-Wilhelm said she “really cannot” think of any examples in which race was medically relevant during a lecture on trauma-informed care.
“[The tagline] does not apply to their students in the slightest. And I would even argue it doesn’t apply to our future patients, because the education that we receive is marginalizing people of color, particularly Black people and transgender folks.”
—Emily Brown NUR ’22
“Patrice was like ‘No, I don’t have any examples’ so I was like, ‘Well I’ve got a ton,’” Ashleigh Evans NUR ’23 told the News. “I start going and I’m like, ‘There is Tuskegee syphilis and John Hopkins and forced sterilization — there are so many examples to choose from,’ and [then] she cuts me off.”
As confirmed by the video, O’Neill-Wilhelm thanked Evans for her contributions during class but asked her to give other students time to speak. Evans was only allowed to continue giving her thoughts at the end of class after two white students spoke up on Evans’ behalf.
Neither Meland nor O’Neill-Wilhelm responded to multiple requests for comment.
For her part, Kurth pointed to the school’s mission — “better health for all people” — in her June email and outlined a curriculum review as one of eight initial actions.
“We reject the use of race as a proxy to make clinical predictions and support racial terminology in the biological sciences only as a political or socioeconomic category to study racism and the structural inequities that produce health disparities in marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved people,” Kurth wrote.
Still, according to Rodriguez, racism in the medicine and nursing curriculum was the core complaint she heard from students during her time as DEI director.
CONVERSATIONS IN THE CLASSROOM
Curriculum is just one part of the problem, students said, citing multiple instances of offensive remarks in the classroom.
Two students told the News that O’Neill-Wilhelm said in a lecture that in her hometown, “All Nepali people work at Dunkin’ Donuts.” O’Neill-Wilhelm did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Four students expressed discomfort about a guest lecturer invited by O’Neill-Wilhelm, Aron Rose, who is an associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine. According to a recording obtained by the News, Rose said in a lecture that “the Argyll Robertson pupil is called the prostitute’s pupil. It’s kind of cute, I remember this as a resident, because it accommodates, but does not react. Get it? Like a prostitute? Good.”
In an email to the News, Rose explained that the Argyll Robertson pupil was “historically called the prostitute’s pupil,” serving as a “mnemonic for medical students.”
Students also said that Rose pointed to Asian nursing students in the room and talked about their eye shape during the same lecture. One student, who requested anonymity due to fear of retribution, expressed concerns to Rose at the time and later emailed LaRon Nelson, who at the time was leading the DEI office as associate dean of global health and equity.
“The Asian students in the class were in fact actually publicly shamed and targeted when he chose to point us out for our lack of double eyelids in front of the whole class,” the email read. “As I’m sure everyone must know, not all Asian people have the same eye shape, and many Asians, including a large population of South Asians, and including myself, do have double eyelids.”
Rose told the News that course instructors had asked him to demonstrate how to flip the upper lid and remove a foreign body from the eye. To do so painlessly and effectively, certain anatomic landmarks such as the upper lid fold — which he said is present in “some patients but not in others” — must be identified.
“While I cannot take responsibility for others’ feelings or how they might interpret the information I aim to impart, I regret any offence taken,” he wrote in an email to the News. “Working with and treating people of multiple ethnicities worldwide is a privilege and a responsibility I take very seriously. I try my best to be sensitive to (and respectful of) all kinds of differences, respectfully acknowledging the numerous variations in humans — be they anatomical or emotional.”
After this incident, students complained about Rose, who was scheduled to give a talk in another professor’s class within the month. Nelson told the News that he looked into student complaints concerning Rose’s comments and met with him about them.
Kurth told the News that when dealing with student complaints on faculty and guest lecturers, the administration attempts to find ways to “educate the offending party” before taking serious action.
“Does it look like [there is] any willingness to acknowledge the harm and to improve?” Kurth said. “If so, then we can facilitate a conversation — if that is desired and consented to. That’s one example of an intervention. If not, it might need to be a very forced conversation with the guest lecturer or faculty member if you will … and then [the] consequence being non-engagement in the school.”
In Rose’s case, it was “clear” that the lecturer was not going to “reflect [or] self-educate,” Kurth told the News. He was not invited back to give his scheduled lecture.
Kurth’s June 18 email outlined plans for “anti-racism education and capacity-skills building” among instructors and students, to be implemented within the next six months. The school also plans to include anti-racism and DEI criteria in course and instructor evaluations starting in the 2021 cycle.
DIVERSITY OF FACULTY AND STUDENTS
In addition to concerns about individual professors, students criticized the makeup of School of Nursing faculty at large and brought up those concerns at Monday’s forum with Dean Kurth.
According to the Office of Institutional Research, there were 25 tenured and tenure-track faculty members out of a total of 97 faculty members at the school during the 2019-20 academic year. On Monday, students asked Kurth how many of those faculty members are Black.
She gave one name: LaRon Nelson.
“Most Black people are in support staff positions,” Shantrice King NUR ’22 told the News. “We need an entire overhaul of our administration. … [We need] a new structure, a new way of thinking about this [and] a new way of working.”
The problem is not just with hired faculty, students said, but also the guest lecturers they invite to the classroom.
“Our guest speakers are predominantly friends or colleagues of our white faculty which perpetuates a culture of learning from only white practitioners, while we know this is not representative of the broader landscape of providers,” Lipari wrote in an email to the News. “It prioritizes the learning of white students who can more easily identify with the providers and perpetuates power dynamics that elevate white knowledge.”
“Most Black people are in support staff positions. We need an entire overhaul of our administration … [We need] a new structure, a new way of thinking about this [and] a new way of working.”
—Shantrice King NUR ’22
Kurth told the News that the nursing school has “made great strides” over the last three years, increasing the number of Black and Latinx faculty on the clinical side by seven.
That progress, according to Kurth, is not limited to faculty. She wrote in a Monday email to the School of Nursing community that the 2020 cohort of students was “the most diverse in YSN history.” The administration, she added, has a “Pursuit of Progress” fund for BIPOC students and programming.
University Provost Scott Strobel echoed Kurth’s sentiments in his own Monday email to the nursing community, stating that BIPOC students compose 31 percent of the student body. In an interview with the News, Kurth described the increase in BIPOC students as “not as far as we want it to be,” but that it was “a step in the right direction.”
Still, students criticize a lack of representation at the school. For example, there were only two Indigenous students and one Indigenous faculty member at the School of Nursing in the 2019-20 academic year, the most recent year for which OIR data is available.
“Indigenous people are kind of just completely left out of the conversation,” Jill Langan NUR ’21 told the News. “The only real support or conversations I’ve had that are substantive around Indigenous health care or focusing on Indigeneity in health has come from peer-to-peer conversations.”
2019 TOWN HALL
In her June 18 statement regarding anti-racism at the School of Nursing, Kurth apologized for “all the times” that BIPOC members of the community were “hurt and let down” because of the school’s failure to effectively address racism.
“Recent examples,” Kurth wrote in the statement, “include incidents that occurred at a Jan. 2019 town hall with the [Graduate Entry Prespecialty in Nursing (GEPN) Program] faculty and students.”
According to McCaugherty and Campion, it was unclear to students in the GEPN Program — the first-year program at the school — what circumstances necessitated this town hall meeting in the first place.
Ana Svibruck NUR ’21 said the meeting started with vague comments and “random feedback” from students about the GEPN Program. After a returning GEPN student declared their support for a remediation policy — which would alter an existing policy that prevented students from continuing in the program if they fail an exam — the conversation started to get confrontational, according to Svibruck.
When Svibruck asked about retention rates for students of color in particular, she and Leonne Tanis NUR ’21 recounted in interviews, Honan asked “Are you saying my exams are racist?”
Kurth told the News that she has had “multiple conversations” with Honan related to the town hall.
“What was happening was that students were expressing their concerns and experiences and every time a person of color spoke, a person from the faculty would directly attack them personally back in response, and it was really bizarre,” McCaugherty said.
Tanis, who is Black, told the News that she was publicly mocked by former School of Nursing professor Shannon Pranger during the town hall. According to Tanis, Pranger “put her hand above her head” and “started snapping” at her — in what Tanis called a “stereotypical impersonation of a Black woman.”
Campion and Tanis added that Pranger became defensive during the town hall.
“She screamed at [those present] that her husband could be Black, we don’t know her, and we don’t know what her family is like,” Campion said. “We were well acquainted with the fact that her husband was a white person.”
Kurth told the News in an interview that Shannon Pranger is “no longer here.” Kurth did not specify whether or not this was related to the town hall incident. Pranger did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After the town hall, Tanis took her grievance to the Provost’s Office, where Director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Access Valarie Stanley conducted an informal investigation. Tanis also met with Kurth, who personally apologized to her, but Tanis felt that wasn’t enough.
Kurth’s public apology — in her anti-racist statement this summer — didn’t come until a year after the fact.
“We need to take action. We need policy changes, because we can talk about racism all day, all year [and] for centuries, but that’s not enough. ”
—Tayisha Saint Vil NUR ’23
Student frustrations came to a head on Monday during a forum with Kurth that aimed to address students’ petition protesting administrative changes in the DEI office. More than 220 nursing students attended — students pressed Kurth not just about their petition but about the School of Nursing’s culture as a whole and her lack of progress in improving it.
“They keep on missing the mark and actively not doing the job,” Sola Stamm NUR ’21 said in an interview. “It’s so unacceptable to see the administration refusing to confront its anti-Black racism instead of expanding and being better teachers, better health care providers and a better institution.”
In addition to raising specific concerns about administrative changes — including Kurth taking the DEI office under her purview — students asked Kurth what grade she believes the nursing community would give her for her response to racism.
“I think it’s clear that you all would say I do not deserve a good score, and I’m willing to hear that,” Kurth said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Saint Vil asked Kurth why she believes many Black students refuse to meet with her, and why those students who do express “trauma, frustration and pain.”
After a pause, Kurth responded that she feels there is a sense that there has been “harm,” and that the harm has not been addressed quickly enough. She added that her goal is to “do better with that.”
“As a community if we can’t have dialogue, we’re not going to be able to move forward,” Kurth said. “We have got to move together in making [this] a better place for our Black students.”
Later in the forum, Co-President of the Yale School of Nursing Student Government Organization Zoe Feinstein NUR ’22 interrupted Kurth to point out that she was using “a lot of passive voice” and “a lot of ‘we’” when students felt that she was the one who had authority.
When Kurth tried to hand the floor over to Nelson, students said they wanted Kurth to speak about these issues.
“I believe in ‘we’ and not just ‘I’,” Kurth responded. “There is a ‘we’ here. We have set up structures like the IDEAS council, like the curriculum committee that has student representation, like now having representatives in GEPN. … That’s the way that we make change.”
Still, students do not think that dialogue is enough.
“We need to take action,” Saint Vil said at the forum. “We need policy changes, because we can talk about racism all day, all year [and] for centuries, but that’s not enough.”
Clarification, Oct. 29: A previous version of this article implied that all 220 students in attendance at the Monday forum brought complaints against Kurth. The article has been updated to clarify that not all 220 attendees brought complaints to the forum.