New post to focus on faculty diversity and leadership

Hannah Valantine

When Hannah Valantine told her colleagues at London University’s medical school more than 20 years ago that she was interested in cardiology, she got variations of the same response: “A black cardiologist who’s a woman as well? You must be mad.”

She laughed as she recounted the story, her British accent still very much in evidence, and said she doubts that African-American women in today’s medical schools would have their sanity questioned over their choice of specialty. But she also acknowledged that medicine is still a field in which many women and members of minority groups feel that their contributions aren’t always valued.

Valantine, MBBS, MD, professor of cardiology (medicine) and director of the post-transplant clinical research program, hopes to find ways of changing that dynamic as she steps into the newly created position of senior associate dean for diversity and leadership at the School of Medicine.

While the school has increased diversity among medical and graduate students, Dean Philip Pizzo said considerable work remains to be done in attracting more women and underrepresented minorities—especially Hispanics and African-Americans—to postgraduate programs and faculty positions. “I wanted to be sure that we had a focused effort on this very significant challenge,” Pizzo said in explaining his decision to create the new role. The issues of diversity and leadership at the medical school will be the focus of the dean’s annual retreat at the end of January.

“Dr. Valantine has had a distinguished career as a physician-scientist and scholar,” Pizzo added. “As a woman and a person of color she is an important role model for our community. Her personal commitment to enhancing diversity and leadership at Stanford made her a wonderful choice for this new position.”

Having a more diverse faculty is a goal Stanford shares with other medical schools. While the number of women entering the MD, PhD and residency programs continues to increase at Stanford, the growth has been slower at the faculty level. A recent study found that the percentage of women who have achieved the rank of professor has hovered around 11 percent for several years. Equally disappointing to school leaders is the fact that the number of minorities entering residency, fellowship and faculty positions has remained flat over the past decade.

Valantine called the situation disappointing and inconsistent with the school’s mission. “At the very least, our faculty should represent the proportions of minorities and women in the general population,” she said.

Her primary goal is to help develop a more inclusive faculty, and to ensure that all faculty members—regardless of race or gender—have the support and resources they need to become leaders in their fields. That means providing mentorship for junior faculty members as well as training in leadership skills, grant writing and forming effective professional networks. The office will also help coordinate the efforts of existing diversity programs aimed at students, postdoctoral scholars and residents.

A more long-term goal is to develop a pipeline for bringing top-notch women and minorities to the medical school. But before that can happen, Valantine said, the school must set about providing the appropriate level of support for the women and minority members now on the faculty.

“It really doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to immediately go out and tell the world that we have this wonderful new program if we’re not focusing on the people who are here to ensure that their careers are developed and that they feel valued and part of the community,” she said. “Those are the people who are going to go out and help us recruit. They have to be our No. 1 focus.”

Valantine’s experiences as a foreign-born black woman working at a U.S. medical school in a field traditionally dominated by white men give her a distinctive viewpoint on diversity issues.

Born in the West African country of Gambia, she moved with her family to England at age 13. After earning her medical degrees in London, she came to Stanford in 1985 for her “BTA” (been to America), which was considered crucial training in the field of cardiology. Although she only intended to stay here for a year, she was recruited for and accepted a faculty position. “I really felt my career path was going to be more supported here than it would have been in England,” she said.

That support came primarily from Caucasians both in England and at Stanford, where her cardiology mentors were established leaders in the field. She disagrees with the notion that minority members are best served by mentors from the same racial background. “I have really never had the opportunity for mentorship from an African-American faculty,” she said, adding that she considers a mentor’s willingness and ability to champion a trainee’s career more significant than a shared ethnicity.

As with the other senior associate deans at the medical school, Valantine’s new job is a half-time position that will allow her to continue her research, teaching and clinical activities. Much of her research is devoted to understanding the role of virus in the development of transplant coronary artery disease in patients who have received heart transplants. To accomplish this multidisciplinary research she has fostered collaborations across several departments. She also works directly with patients in the post-cardiac transplant clinic, the general cardiology clinic and the inpatient cardiology service.

Valantine is heavily involved in the medical school admissions process and has served on several school committees dealing with diversity and gender issues. Those experiences have reinforced her conviction that exposure to patients and colleagues from differing backgrounds is the best way to prepare Stanford students, researchers and physicians to address the world’s medical needs.

“One of the major missions of the medical school is to build leaders for the future,” she said. “Everybody is important—and that includes women and underrepresented minorities.”

“Do-icide” means taking action

Hannah Valantine, the cardiologist who has been tapped to become the new senior associate dean for diversity and leadership, is a doer by nature and by training. “Cardiology is very much a specialty of intervention,” she said. “You get in there and do things.” Indeed, she describes her personal philosophy as “do-icide,” and she’s already applying it to her new mission. Here are a few items on her to-do list:

- Create an executive committee to help define goals and set priorities.

- Create a diversity council, composed of small strategic groups to address the unmet needs of faculty and other stakeholder groups.

- Consult with department chairs to determine their goals for diversity and how the office can help them with diversity-related issues.

- Reinvigorate mentorship programs for junior faculty.

- Institute social programs to enable minority faculty members from throughout the campus to network with each other.