Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard University, addressed the issue of unconscious bias during a Zoom presentation on Sept. 22, 2020.

Niagara University presented the first in its “Transformative Visions” presidential speaker series on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. in the Castellani Art Museum on the university’s campus. Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of Howard University, the nation’s leading historically Black university, was inaugural speaker for the series, which features conversations with visionaries who have imagined and struggled to create a just future.

Dr. Frederick, a national expert on disparities in healthcare and medical education, as well as salient topics in higher education, gave a brief introduction to his early life for those in attendance before the presentation began. Born in Trinidad, he was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, which greatly influenced his future career in medicine. He graduated high school at the age of 14 and enrolled in Howard University's B.S./M.D. dual degree program at the age of 16. After earning his medical degree at the age of 22, he completed a surgical residency at Howard University Hospital and post-doctoral research and surgical oncology fellowships at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He began his academic career as associate director of the Cancer Center at the University of Connecticut in 2004, and returned to Howard University at the invitation of his mentor, renowned doctor LaSalle D. Leffall Jr., in 2006. He earned an MBA from Howard in 2011, and on July 21, 2014, after having served as interim president since the previous October, he was officially named the 17th president of Howard University.

“I am a reluctant university president,” he admitted. “I didn’t have any aspirations to become a president.”

Dr. Frederick began his presentation on unconscious bias in the US through the lens of academia with an introduction to academic medicine and the Flexner Report. This report, a study of American medical education by Abraham Flexner, led to far-reaching reform and the closing of most rural medical schools and all but two African-American medical colleges in the United States, significantly decreasing the number of African Americans who enrolled in medical school since its release. Dr. Frederick shared that his own bias against Flexner changed after he learned that Flexner served as a member of Howard’s board of trustees.

Dr. Frederick also spoke about a study on unconscious/implicit race and class bias among first-year medical students, and explained how the coronavirus pandemic has brought numerous issues into the forefront, most notably its disproportionate impact on African Americans due to structural racism.

“We must see this crisis as an opportunity for progress,” he said. “The process for that change is complicated. We must identify the problems and be very honest about them. We must determine why they exist, understand why they persist, and we have to figure out how they can be fixed.”

Noting that the issues of healthcare and the lack of economic opportunity are interconnected, he offered some of the initiatives undertaken by Howard University that have increased access to education for African Americans as examples of positive change. “Howard is trying to lead the pursuit of a just, equitable, and sustainable healthcare system, but I would argue that this starts with introducing more Black doctors into the profession.”

A question-and-answer session followed his presentation, during which he addressed questions around COVID and depression among young people; what municipalities can do in terms of improving healthcare for all of its residents; the effects of protests on college campuses; why he feels  the nomination of Harris alumna Kamala Harris as a candidate for vice president is an extraordinary moment; and the ways in which COVID is worsening disparities in the healthcare system.

He advised the students to make sure that something “comes at the end” of their protests and to educate themselves about the issues, both before engaging in protests and before voting. “If you are not learned about the issue at hand, you are not ready to go protest about it. In an election year, we should be very clear about what every issue is, every issue that people are protesting, what the Democrats think about it, what the Republicans think about it, what some of the minor parties think about it. I don’t care how you vote—what I do care about is that you vote, and that you vote in an educated fashion.”

He also advocated for balance in presenting viewpoints on college campuses and against being dismissive of one another’s ideas. “I tell people my campus is left of left. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it becomes problematic if somebody to the right can’t come on this campus and have a conversation. Our universities should be the cauldron of free thought, of robust, vigorous debate, regardless of what you think about an issue. I would say it for the young people in the room, when you think of those biases, ask yourself, what is the source, where does that come from, and what can you, yourself, do to change that?”

He concluded with the following words to those who may be losing hope because of what is happening at this moment in history.

“One of the things about the human condition that I love, and the reason that I think I am so obsessed with the journey of life, is the fact that we all have the capacity to love. That capacity to love is the ultimate hope in anything that we do. We all have a responsibility to express that love for each other in the best way we can.”

The next presentation in the Transformative Visions series will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 7 p.m. Denis McDonough, former White House chief of staff under president Barack Obama and former White House deputy national security adviser, will present a fireside chat on politics, climate change, and foreign policy. The presentation will accessible to the community through Zoom.

For more information about the series, contact Kevin Hinkley, khinkley@niagara.edu, or Dr. Reilly, dreilly@niagara.edu.

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