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Leaders respond to concerns about racism in medical school’s psychiatry department

Leadership from the David Geffen School of Medicine’s department of psychiatry responded to concerns raised by department faculty earlier this week. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Anushka Chakrabarti

March 9, 2022 11:14 p.m.

UCLA Health leadership announced the current interim chair of the psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences department will return to faculty duties soon and the process to find a new permanent chair will begin, two days after faculty members sent a letter requesting a response from psychiatry department leadership following a Daily Bruin investigation.

Faculty members in the David Geffen School of Medicine’s psychiatry department sent a letter March 1 demanding a response from department leadership following The Bruin’s investigation into allegations of discriminatory practices in the department.

[Related: UCLA Medical school faculty allege racially biased practices in psychiatry department]

Members of the Psychiatry Diversity Advisory Committee wrote the letter and addressed it to Dr. Alex Young and Dr. Andrew Leuchter, the interim chair and executive vice chair of the psychiatry department, respectively.

The letter referenced issues within the department of psychiatry and also the Semel Institute for Neuroscience, a center that works in tandem with the department.

The faculty members said in the letter that The Bruin’s article highlighted systemic issues within the department and the school of medicine. They asked Leuchter and Young to provide a written response to issues raised in the article instead of passing the responsibility to the vice chair for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion and chair of the PDAC.

“Though clearly not limited only to our department (i.e., the article also highlighted the broader issues within DGSOM and the University), the examples of systemic racism detailed in the article warrant a response that describes needed reforms and unequivocally communicates our department’s anti-racist stance,” the letter read.

The committee listed seven primary failures, including claims that the department has failed to hold its leadership and faculty accountable for acts of racism and created a culture of retaliation against faculty for their political views and advocacy efforts. It also highlighted the failures to expand access to care for patients with Medi-Cal, patients from minority backgrounds and patients who are uninsured.

Additionally, the committee requested that administrators revise the admissions process to require all departmental training programs to use holistic review, a process that has been shown to help more individuals from underrepresented backgrounds be selected.

The PDAC faculty said in the letter that this is an opportunity for a moment of change within the department and the school of medicine.

“We hope that we can publicly affirm our department’s anti-racist commitment by humbly acknowledging our past, and courageously striving toward a more just and equitable future as a more unified, diverse, and inclusive community capable of empowering change together,” the letter read.

All psychiatry faculty received an email March 3 from UCLA Health leadership that informed them Young will return to his faculty duties after the end of his two-year term as interim department chair. Young began his term as the interim chair in March 2020, and his term is expected to end in March. The email was from Dr. John Mazziotta, vice chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences; Dr. Steven Dubinett, the school of medicine’s interim dean; and Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health.

The email acknowledged that the process to find permanent leadership started three years ago but has progressed little. The email also stated that they will begin a search in July for one person to serve as chair and executive medical director of the department of psychiatry as well as director of the institute.

The decision to hire one person came following faculty feedback that the organization is best served by one person, according to the email.

UCLA Health leadership also said in the email that it will immediately start to look for a new interim chair internally to lead the psychiatry department and institute until a permanent chair is hired. Faculty will receive an email asking them to nominate individuals for the interim position at a later date, according to the email.

UCLA Health leadership predicted in the email that a new director will likely take over around one year after the beginning of the search.

Leuchter and Young responded to PDAC’s original email with a letter March 4 to say that they take the concerns seriously and acknowledged their colleagues’ painful lived experiences.

“We regret that we are not able to discuss the accuracy of alleged occurrences involving specific individuals because university policy requires us to keep personnel matters confidential,” they wrote in the response letter. “We can, however, discuss actions we have taken collectively as a faculty as well as those we plan to take to address your very legitimate concerns.”

Young and Leuchter referred The Bruin to their response letter when asked why these conversations only arose in light of the recently published investigation.

“(The letter) reflects extensive efforts to collaborate with the committee and others to establish a foundation that will lead to a more equitable and inclusive future,” Young and Leuchter said in an emailed statement.

In the response to the PDAC’s concerns about faculty diversity, Young and Leuchter said in the letter they have increased efforts in faculty recruitment, especially with respect to diversity. To ensure transparency, they shared a roster of all incoming faculty at the beginning of the academic year, they wrote in the letter.

They also wrote in the letter that of the six new faculty who joined at the start of the 2022 academic year, four individuals were people of color and three individuals were from underrepresented groups in medicine.

The letter also shared that Leuchter appointed the first woman of color as an endowed chair in the psychiatry department after leadership received approval in 2021 to broaden eligibility criteria for one endowed chair position.

The letter also responded to other concerns, including faculty members’ call to serve a more diverse set of patients. The letter shared that Young is the co-chair of a working group focused on improving health equity and expanding the accessibility of UCLA Health medical services.

“UCLA Health is at an advanced stage of contract negotiations that would enable us to accept adult Medi-Cal inpatients,” the letter read. “We also are working with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to establish a new opportunity for us to provide services to County clients that would include our trainees.”

On March 4, the PDAC faculty members also received an email from Nai Saeteurn-Dang, Dubinett’s assistant, on behalf of the interim dean and vice dean of the school of medicine to arrange a meeting to discuss faculty concerns about the department in March.

The PDAC faculty said in their original letter that the concerns went beyond those described in the article.

“It is important to note that these individuals’ stories represent only a fraction of the many complaints of racism from faculty, trainees, and staff, which our Committee members are aware of that have been shared by trusted colleagues,” the letter read.

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Anushka Chakrabarti | News editor
Chakrabarti is currently the 2021-2022 News editor. She was previously the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the science and health beat, and she was a former contributor for online. She is also a third-year mathematics and economics student at UCLA.
Chakrabarti is currently the 2021-2022 News editor. She was previously the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the science and health beat, and she was a former contributor for online. She is also a third-year mathematics and economics student at UCLA.
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