40 Things to Know: Our college was led by the first female African American dean of a medical school

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Embracing diversity and serving the underserved are bedrock values for both our college and the osteopathic profession. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that we made history in August 1993, when our university and college chose an African American woman to be our dean.

When we announced that our new physician leader was Barbara Ross Lee, D.O., sister of Motown superstar Diana Ross, it marked a step forward for diversity in medical education. And Dr. Ross-Lee clearly understood that bringing more minorities into health care can mean better care for underserved populations. She also stressed the important role that osteopathic medicine can play in making that happen.

Speaking to Black Issues in Higher Education about her new job, Dr. Ross-Lee said osteopathic medicine offers great opportunities for minority physicians to improve care delivery to populations “we are most concerned about.” And as she has throughout her career, she spoke frankly about racial disparities in health care, calling them “a scandal of such long standing that it has lost the power to shock.”

Predictably, the national press had some fun with the fact that the new dean was sibling to a pop music icon. “Diana Ross’s big sister hit No. 1 on the charts this month,” deadpanned Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “Not the record charts. The medical charts.”

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Dr. Ross-Lee speaks at the 2014 Ohio Osteopathic Symposium.

African American media, though, cheered the appointment as a landmark. Dr. Ross-Lee herself hinted it was about time, telling Jet magazine that initially, she hadn’t realized her appointment was a historic first. “I probably, like the rest of the country, was a little surprised,” she admitted, adding that she hoped “this breaking of a barrier will just turn into a tide and we’ll see a lot more black females achieving in medical academics.”

Dr. Ross-Lee’s seven years at the helm were important for more than barrier-busting. Dean emeritus Jack Brose, D.O., who served from 2001-2012 and is now vice provost for health affairs, praises Ross-Lee for her bold innovation and “terrific leadership skills. I know I certainly learned a lot from her.”

Creative leadership was indeed, as Dr. Brose suggests, a hallmark of her tenure. Under her direction the college developed the nation’s first osteopathic post-doctoral training institute; its Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education; its two curricular options; an independent Department of Biomedical Sciences; and a Center of Excellence for Multicultural Medicine.

In 2001 Dr. Ross-Lee left our college to go to the New York Institute of Technology, where she currently serves as vice president for health sciences and medical affairs, and site dean for the Jonesboro, Ark., campus of NYIT’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Since moving on, she has continued to carry the standard for osteopathic medicine, health care diversity, and serving the underserved. In doing so, she has carried on a tradition as old as osteopathic medicine founder A.T. Still, who battled throughout his 19th century career against slavery and racism, and in favor of women’s rights.

Perhaps the symbolic breakthrough she achieved should have come earlier. We’re proud that it happened here.

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