UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA administrators halted their search for a new psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences department chair to address faculty concerns about diversity, leadership logistics and transparency.
Administrators began seeking a replacement for the current executive chair, Peter Whybrow, after he announced his retirement in 2018.
Faculty members said in two town halls Jan. 7 and Jan. 10 that the search committee created to find Whybrow’s replacement was not sufficiently diverse to find a candidate who would understand the needs of Los Angeles’ minority communities. Out of the 11 original members on the search committee, 10 were white and eight were men.
They also questioned UCLA Health’s intention to divide Whybrow’s former leadership roles into two positions, the head of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and a separate psychiatric chair. Some faculty said they believe this may create a false distinction between the roles of the Semel Institute and the department of psychiatry.
Administrators said they originally intended to appoint a chair for the department of psychiatry first, then use the chair’s input to appoint a “visionary leader” for the Semel Institute, according to an email sent by UCLA Health administrators.
Administrators sent an email to faculty Jan. 25 stating they would hold six to eight weeks of small group meetings with faculty to discuss their concerns. They also announced they would be adopting changes to the search committee to make it more diverse.
UCLA Health faculty spoke to the Daily Bruin on the condition of anonymity because they were concerned for their job security.
During a town hall Jan. 10, faculty expressed their disappointment with the lack of diversity on the search committee appointed to provide a shortlist of candidates for the chair position.
Faculty said they were concerned because they felt the committee’s demographics did not reflect those of UCLA or Los Angeles.
In response, administrators said they would make changes to the search committee.
Employee A said she believes the composition of the first committee indicated administrators do not prioritize diversity, despite their enforcement of bias training and other diversity measures for faculty.
She added that administrators were not setting an adequate example by appointing a committee that did not reflect the Los Angeles community.
“What are the higher-ups modeling to us?” Employee A said. “It looks like they’re giving lip service to the issues of diversity, but in their actions they’re not really following through.”
Employee D said research from the Association of American Medical Colleges showed diverse search committees were better at choosing leaders who valued equity and inclusion.
Employee D added he thought the Semel Institute did not do enough research on issues affecting racial, linguistic or sexual minorities, as well as those affecting people with disabilities.
“If the leadership … doesn’t push to motivate everyone to ask scientific questions that generalize more broadly to people that historically have been underrepresented in science, then we just perpetuate the same type of science over and over again,” Employee D said.
Employee B said she thinks existing racial disparities in the department of psychiatry have been continually ignored.
“It’s very clear that people of color don’t have the same opportunities; the positions that people of color fill are not permanent positions, they have to make their own salaries and their areas of expertise aren’t necessarily looked at as something that should be included in some of the permanent programs,” Employee B said.
Employee B said she thinks administrators’ limited efforts to promote diversity indicated issues of race will continue to be ignored under whoever is chosen to be the new department chair.
“I think before we begin to discuss how the department should be structured, I think we ought to be sure that the opportunities for people of color are the same as for anybody else, and that’s just not being attended to,” Employee B said.
Two versus one
Administrators said in an email statement they plan to divide Whybrow’s leadership position into two separate ones because they want to prevent conflict between the goals of the Semel Institute and the department of psychiatry.
They said they think the role of the Semel Institute is to conduct research into both basic and psychiatric neuroscience. By contrast, they said the department of psychiatry was intended for solely psychiatric research, as well as teaching and clinical care.
Faculty said they think the administrators’ plan to establish a separate director of the Semel Institute was intended to use the Institute’s resources to prioritize basic neuroscience research over research into psychiatry and clinical care.
Employee E said that the Semel Institute had been originally established as a hospital and institution for psychiatric research. He added UCLA Health and school of medicine leaders were justifying the change based on an incorrect understanding of the established purpose of the Semel Institute.
“I believe that the administration is misinterpreting that, thinking that they have the ability of turning a neuropsychiatric institute into neuroscience research institute,” Employee E said.
Employee G said she opposed dividing the leadership position because she believes it gives the false impression that the Semel Institute and the psychiatric department are splitting into separate entities.
“I think a world-class leader in psychiatry would come because of that integrated mission, and the ability to work across those different domains,” Employee G said.
Employee F said he believes the administration should continue to support research that integrates neuroscience, psychiatry and other disciplines, as has been the tradition of the Semel Institute.
“The idea that (the Semel Institute should) actually be connected to our clinical and teaching missions is not at all considered in their proposal, and I believe it would seriously undermine that,” Employee F said.
Employee E said the Semel Institute contains the majority of the two institutions’ full-time staff positions and resources. He added the administrators’ proposal would lead the chair of psychiatry to become dependent on the director of the Semel Institute because the department of psychiatry would have insufficient resources.
“This would put a constant tension and conflict between the two,” Employee E said.
Employee F said the separation would hinder interdisciplinary study.
“Our greatest success has been getting very large grants that bring together basic and clinical scientists,” Employee F said. “The proposed structure undermines that and will make it more difficult to do the kind of translational interdisciplinary research that we’re known for.”
In order to continue deliberations, administrators proposed meeting with faculty in small groups in the coming six to eight weeks. Some faculty believe this process inhibits transparency by not allowing faculty to openly discuss their concerns with each other in an open forum.
Employee F said he believes this decision is calculated to weaken faculty’s voice as a unit.
“I believe that it’s actually an attempt to try to defuse the tension that they experienced when they actually did confront a unified group of us,” Employee F said.
Employee G said the proposal for small group meetings is not transparent because she thinks making a decision about dividing the leadership positions requires input from the entire campus over a longer time period.
“I think there needs to be a large group, thoughtful engagement, across the (department), not hand-selected small groups,” Employee G said.
Employee G added she thinks most faculty share these concerns.
“It is more importantly about the process by which the proposals happen and the lack of input that anybody has had into it,” Employee G said. “I think this could be incredibly destructive, the process.”
Employee C said despite a lack of clarity moving forward, she believes the conversation is moving in a positive direction.
“I think it’s very unclear exactly what ‘putting off’ means, I think it’s unclear exactly what a more diverse committee will look like,” she said. “But I think that it feels like things are moving in a better direction.”