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Removing portraits of white scholars is the new approach to promote diversity

Medical universities showcase walls covered with portraits of scientists from the university who have won either a Nobel Prize or the Lasker Award, a major medical prize. The walls are now being criticized for being too “white” and “male.”

Rockefeller University in New York is the oldest U.S. biomedical research university, with a long list of alumni who have been awarded either the Nobel Prize or the Lasker Award. Because of that, the university honors these individuals by putting up their portraits. The fact that they are all men, bothers some people within the community. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow termed this wall a “dude wall”, when speaking at the school in 2015.

Rockefeller University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall, and others have made a committee dedicated to bringing more diversity to the wall. “One hundred percent of them are men,” Vosshall said. “It’s probably 30 headshots of 30 men. So it’s imposing.”

“I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, ‘what kind of message are we sending with these oil portraits and dusty old photographs?’” she added, claiming that the wall “sends the message, every day when you walk by it, that science consists of old white men.”

Yale’s School of Medicine has a gallery of similar portraits. At Yale, Pierson College head Stephen Davis removed all of the portraits because they were all white men and stated that the wall would be blank so that “everyone has a sense of belonging and ownership.”

“I don’t necessarily always have a reaction,” Yale medical student Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako said. “But then there are times when you’re having a really bad day — someone says something racist to you, or you’re struggling with feeling like you belong in the space — and then you see all those photos and it kind of reinforces whatever you might have been feeling at the time.”

Some Yale medical students and a professor conducted a study about the wall. “Students felt like these portraits were not just ancient, historic things that had nothing to do with their contemporary experience,” study co-author and medical student Nientara Anderson said. “They actually felt that the portraits reinforced contemporary issues of exclusion, of racial discrimination — of othering.”

The university is now commissioning additional portraits of female and racial minority community individuals.

University of Michigan’s Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology moved the paintings from their position in the department’s seminar room and put them away in the department chair’s office, National Public Radio reports. The university is in the process of replacing the honorary portraits with artworks of important discoveries made by students, faculty, and trainees.

The Network of Enlightened Women President Karin Lips told Campus Reform that the success of young women doesn’t depend on whether or not there are portraits of men. “In fostering an environment where everyone has equal opportunity to achieve their dreams, we should be careful not to erase history,” Lips said. “For women to succeed, we don’t have to erase men or their past achievements.”

George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley wrote a column about the issue: “for most of us, the obvious message is that these individuals achieved the highest honors in their fields, and the significance is neither their race nor their gender but their intellect…All those portraits represent the greatest among us as intellectuals. To see only their race and gender is not just backlash against intellectual achievement but can be itself a form of racial and gender bias.”