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Art Influences One’s Sense of Belonging, Says Research by Yale Med Students

A new report suggests that art can play an important role in welcoming women and minority groups into spaces of higher education that have historically excluded them.

A portrait of Eli Ives by Nathaniel Jocelyn; he was an originator of the Yale School of Medicine and his portrait is part of the school’s collection (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A new report published by the Society of General Internal Medicine finds that some students in medical school would like to see universities diversify their collections of institutional portraiture. The survey suggests that art plays an important role in creating a welcoming space in higher education; alternatively, homogenous paintings and statuary can make women and minority groups feel excluded from institutional spaces.

The study, which was conducted by students and a professor at Yale School of Medicine, comes at a time when professional and graduate programs are trying to remove barriers for students who have historically been alienated from higher learning because of bigotry and prejudice. Some have called law the least diverse profession in the United States. Others have pointed to medical schools, which have struggled to recruit Black doctors. In 2016, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimated that the presence of Black-identifying students was 7.7 percent, falling short of the 13.4 percent seen in the country’s general population.

The Yale report included confidential interviews with 15 subjects from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Participants were asked to discuss their feelings about the school’s art collection, which consists of three portraits of white women and 52 portraits of white men. The study’s authors — Elizabeth Fitzsousa, Nientara Anderson, and Anna Reisman (an associate professor) — found that many of their subjects saw these paintings as a demonstration of their school’s values, which they identified as whiteness, elitism, maleness, and power. The study says that participants thought that portraits exacerbated feelings of being judged and unwelcome at the school, or that “this institution was never meant for me.”

“It was 100 years since the first women graduated from here or went here. It’s been 100 years and all the pictures on the wall are still men,” one student replied.

“I think if these portraits could speak, they would not be so excited about me,” said another. “They might spit at me.”

Universities and their students have struggled over what role public monuments and dedications to historical figures with politically unsavory pasts should serve on contemporary college campuses. Last December, University of North Carolina’s chancellor and board of trustees announced their proposal to build a $5.3 million permanent enclosure for a Confederate monument that was toppled by student protesters in an August demonstration. The decision drew such public condemnation that the plan was ultimately scrapped. A different kind of controversy occurred on the Harvard Law School campus in 2015, when vandals defaced six portraits of Black professors at the prestigious university with black tape covering their faces. Harvard officials condemned the actions and university police investigated the matter, but ultimately failed to identify the culprits.

The Medical-Historical Library at Yale (image via Wikimedia Commons)

But the issue of representation has become especially important in the medical field, where racial biases and cultural misinterpretations can impact healthcare. In 2018, Harvard Medical School decided to disperse its wall of white male luminaries instead of presenting them on a single wall as a monolithic image of the medical field. Previously, their 31 gold-framed portraits of industry leaders included zero women, thirty white men, and one Chinese man. The paintings were dispersed to department conference rooms and lobbies throughout the university hospital, according to a Boston Globe report.

Yale has undergone similar efforts. In March, the university’s medical school opened an exhibition featuring portraits of women faculty, many of which were created in connection with the school’s centennial celebration of admitting women in 2016. Administration officials did not return Hyperallergic’s request for comment for this article.

Speaking to Hyperallergic by email, Fitzsousa and her colleagues said that they hope their research will prompt a discussion of historical injustices which have prevented women and people of color from joining the medical profession. Yale has an obligation, they wrote, “to create a space that is welcoming to all, especially those who might not be able to imagine themselves as part of this institution.”

“As art often does, the portraits offer a particularly elegant way to explore how the history of racism and colonization in the United States has helped to shape American medicine in ways that are exclusionary to minority groups,” the researchers added.

Other students at Yale School of Medicine told Hyperallergic that they rarely noticed the portraits during their time at the university. Some had trouble even distinguishing where the portraits were located. But one student added that the administration in recent years has become more diverse than ever, and students have been eager to talk about race issues in medical school, especially when it comes to student and patient populations.

“To students who do feel fully welcomed by Yale School of Medicine,” the study’s authors said, “we would ask them to think about how and why their experiences at this institution might be different from others, and why it matters that some students feel so strongly about this.”

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