Strengthening inclusion, academic excellence at the college
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Strengthening inclusion, academic excellence at the college

In October of 2020, during a year that has proven transformative for people across the globe, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) established a new leadership position, the assistant dean for inclusion and academic excellence. Dr. Melanie Ragin joins the college in this new role.

“As many of you know, the university and our college are making focused efforts to address the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Lorin D. Warnick, D.V.M., Ph.D. ’94, Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “The creation of this new position signifies a key step in these efforts. I sincerely appreciate Melanie’s willingness to join our leadership team in this critical role.”

Ragin will lead the college’s diversity office to advance the diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategic goals at CVM, in alignment with the university’s Belonging at Cornell framework. She will work closely with the CVM Belonging at Cornell Committee and other members of the college community to foster broad input and participation in diversity efforts and to implement new initiatives.

Below, Ragin gives us a preview of what’s in store at CVM.

Dr. Melanie Ragin standing in the CVM atrium
Dr. Melanie Ragin, who joins the college as the assistant dean for inclusion and academic excellence. Photo: Carol Jennings/Cornell Vet

Q What has been the most rewarding part of your job so far?

A The most rewarding part of this job is being able to apply all of my professional and personal experiences. I have a unique set of personal, academic and professional experiences that allows me to look at D&I from many perspectives. I grew up in a military family, next to the Mexico border in San Diego, California. I am a first-generation college student, a community college transfer student and a Black female with an advanced degree in STEM. I enjoy and am excited about working with so many different people, hearing their perspectives, being able effect change and make the college a better place.

Q What have been CVM’s greatest strengths when it comes to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts? Greatest challenges?

A Our strengths are that CVM’s leadership and broader community are truly invested and engaged in making the college more diverse and inclusive in all aspects, not just racial or ethnic.

The greatest challenge is that veterinary medicine has been and is historically the least diverse of all medical professions. CVM is a leader on campus in its efforts to address diversity and inclusion efforts through its various initiatives — Many Voices, One College being an example.

D&I is not just a job or an initiative or a program. It’s cultural and systemic change, engaging a community that might not have normally been involved in these efforts, ensuring that people understand that this is not about Black and white, but making sure every voice, every identity, every ability has a place and a space.

Q How does CVM ensure that Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) faculty, staff and students feel welcome and supported?

A Our goal is not only to ensure BIPOC faculty, staff and students feel welcome and supported, but also those who are part of the LGBTQ+ communities and persons with (non)visible disabilities. This can be done through a variety of formats that allow for review of feedback from climate surveys, suggestions and discussions that may be uncomfortable, but also focusing on the issues specific to each of those groups by seeing what has been successful and where barriers and gaps exist for each of these groups. We are in the process of forming a staff advisory council and the Belonging at Cornell committees are working to address faculty and students.

Q Why does veterinary medicine in particular face diversity issues?

AThere are a variety of reasons why this is the case: systems, policies, structures, processes, culture and history. It’s important that spaces like CVM are owning, naming and actively identifying each element of the diversity issue and the part they play in correcting or perpetuating the problem.

Veterinary medicine, as with many professions and structures in the United States, is part of a long, complex and layered history that is not easily and quickly corrected, but if each organization and community organization actively identified these elements, we would effect positive change more quickly.

Q Scientific research is also historically dominated by white and male voices. How does one begin to address this imbalance?

A This is layered, but a lot of it begins with the educational inequities early on, exposure to scientific research, along with access and awareness of research programs that provide skills. One way to address this is for white and male researchers to use their voices, to open access to opportunities and information, and to use their privilege to create and make space for those who do not have the lineage of access and privilege that provide them with the research experiences to prepare them (i.e., community college students, BIPOC, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups).

Q Where are our efforts best directed when it comes to such expansive, complicated initiatives like D&I?

A All areas are important, but I see one of our main priorities as getting more of the CVM community to engage in D&I efforts and helping people to feel more comfortable engaging in these efforts.

Increased engagement is crucial to real culture change across the college community. We want to help people better understand that this is not just about black and white; it’s about creating a better learning and working environment for everyone, regardless of our differences. I hope there will be more involvement, and that we’ll be able to provide the skills and tools to engage around this area and related topics that will make people more comfortable. I truly want everyone — regardless of identity, community or beliefs — to feel like they have a space and a voice with me and at CVM.

Another priority is analyzing climate data and getting an understanding of the CVM landscape (e.g., What already exists and where are the gaps?) to inform our actions and initiatives. I also firmly believe in being creative and taking risks in how we approach D&I. We cannot take a cookie cutter approach.

"Increased engagement is crucial to real culture change across the college community."

Dr. Melanie Ragin, assistant dean for inclusion and academic excellence

Q How do members of the CVM community who are not in leadership positions play a role in D&I initiatives?

A Leadership is not restricted to the titles and positions we hold. We can all be leaders in the spaces we occupy and positions we hold, but at different levels. We can communicate our personal culture and hold those around us accountable in ways that says we value D&I. We all have the power to lead a personal culture of support and inclusivity. Saying hello to a person you do not know, inviting someone from another unit to participate in a social activity, inviting someone to lunch or, in our current space, reaching out to someone you’d like to know better for a socially distanced walk or Zoom call.

Even when we do not know it, we have an impact on the people around us, and that can be good or bad. Programs, initiatives and policies can be written or mandated by leadership, but it’s the daily, individual buy-in and implementation of these various items that creates real and lasting culture change.

Q How will you collaborate with groups like Belonging at Cornell, the CVM Belonging at Cornell Committee and various student groups?

A I will continue to work with CVM’s human resources director Mary Beth Jordan, who is the other Belonging at Cornell lead, to work with the Presidential Advisers on Diversity and Equity group and support the integration of the Belonging at Cornell framework through the CVM Belonging at Cornell committee, ensuring that our structure and initiatives are in line with broader university efforts and to identify times when we can collaborate across campus.

For example, on behalf of CVM, we supported the sub-mission of two innovation grants with units across campus for funding under the university’s Belonging at Cornell framework. In addition, the CVM Belonging at Cornell Committee members are focusing on four key areas that address the overall experience of faculty, staff and students:

  1. improving communications around diversity and inclusion
  2. enriching educational programming
  3. enhancing the D.V.M. pipeline for underrepresented minority students
  4. increasing faculty diversity through recruitment and retention.

With the guidance and support of Antonia Jameson-Jordan, D.V.M. ’99, Ph.D. ’08, and Jai Sweet, Ph.D. ’96, on how we can regularly receive input from the community, the dean and I have arranged monthly meetings with a student advisory council comprised of leaders of CVM student groups. I have also been working with Michelle Moyal, D.V.M. ’07, who has been dedicating her time and efforts to supporting veterinary students, particularly the Black D.V.M. Student Network.

In addition to these collaborations and supporting efforts, I hope that any person who is part of the CVM community feels comfortable reaching out to me directly to provide feedback, suggestions or just to have a discussion. Strong, impactful, long-term collaborations are central to the culture change we seek with this office. D&I is not just an initiative, an office or series of programs integrated into a college. It is a culture change that we all hope will translate to broader societal change.

Q Are there any changes happening in higher education right now that you think are promising?

A There is a different energy, awareness and momentum in the aftermath of the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd and several other Black Americans by the police. There is an awareness and desire to see true systemic change that has not existed before. This led to a D&I town hall with the CVM community that had very high attendance.

The energy and momentum is not the same as it was this summer, which I attribute to the demands on us individually with the pandemic, social unrest and a highly fraught election that made it hard to maintain the same sustained fever pitch of emotion when we need to maintain our well-being and muster the energy to forge ahead day-to-day. But I also sense that there is real investment in making change. I think there is an understanding that we cannot do the “same old.” We need to be cognizant of taking a holistic D&I approach so that all marginalized and minoritized groups (i.e., LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities and BIPOC) in veterinary medicine and scientific research feel valued, supported and included.

Q What next steps might CVM want to take to further advance D&I?

A I see the next steps as understanding, coordinating and centralizing D&I efforts. These steps will help us identify what we are doing well, where we have gaps and hurdles, allowing us to capitalize and replicate successes, along with creating impactful initiatives that support faculty, staff and students at CVM.

Additionally, centralizing information and resources allows us to better collaborate and support each other and create what we all aim to achieve: a diverse and inclusive learning and working environment that respects, values and supports every member of our community, so that we all have a true sense of belonging.