This story first appeared in the Missourian on April 22. That version of the story is available here.
COLUMBIA — He was there in 1967, as fires raged in Detroit and black men and women raged with them.
Warren Lockette was a boy. His father moved from the South to get a college education, and Detroit was a city that seemed like a safe haven at the beginning of the civil rights era. Then, on July 23, 1967, one of the largest and most destructive riots in U.S. history erupted in the city. It was inspired by racial tensions, and resolving those became a theme in Lockette’s life.
That’s what has led him back to the Midwest, to Columbia, and to the MU School of Medicine.
Although Lockette thrives in difficult situations, getting the medical school to embrace diversity and become a top institution by that measure will be one of his greatest challenges.
It presents a more subtle test, but one in which he is an active participant as the MU School of Medicine’s new senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion.
On a campus that had just 7 percent enrollment of black students in 2013, the School of Medicine stands out as one of the worst at recruiting and retaining minority talent.
MU, Lockette said, is monochromatic. That has to change for it to compete with top research institutions in the country, and it has to change for the well-being of the school and its students, too. According to 2014 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 10 of the School of Medicine’s 403 students — or 2.4 percent of the group — identify as black or African American.
Those experiences in Detroit started Lockette’s path here. He figured out early that education is the only way to overcome the gaps in understanding that lead to tensions.
More than medicine
Lockette still has the air of the Army about him. He wears army green pants and T-shirt and has a razor-thin buzz cut peppered with gray. He wears military-style boots and slim glasses, and around his office are reminders of his time at the Pentagon.
Recently, he worked under the lengthy title of deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical and program policy. He worked with the U.S. military to ensure best practices for treatment in the field and post-deployment.
For him, the impulse to help is an old one rooted in the Midwest. Lockette stayed close to home and went to the University of Michigan for his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. He went to medical school for the simplest of reasons: “I really wanted to help people.”
He left medical practice so he could make an impact in different ways. He served as a faculty member at Wayne State University in Detroit, at his alma mater and at the University of California-San Diego. He worked with the Naval Medical Center and was a senior adviser to Naval Special Warfare Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
“My role in helping people isn’t limited to what I can do with a stethoscope,” Lockette said. “I saw an opportunity here where I would be able to help people. It’s really nothing enigmatic.”
He’s been a clinician and an educator, and his background gives Lockette a vested interest in his position at MU. The timing could not be better for the medical school, which has been criticized for its lack of diversity and recruitment of minorities, even when compared to a university that struggles in general to bring in students and faculty of color.
Josiane Tossa, a first-year student in medicine, said she was the only person of color in her class. Her curly red hair, along with the color of her skin, prompted someone in the Office of Medical Education to call her “different … because of your hair” and cite that as a reason she might feel more unwelcome within the school.
Since his arrival, Lockette has helped ease some of Tossa’s concerns and academic troubles. She struggled with studying, and tutoring services offered by the School of Medicine weren’t helping. When the program didn’t offer other solutions, she turned to the new diversity dean.
“No one can better understand how it feels to be in my shoes and how it feels to be the only person of color in a room than another person of color. My medical school experience, although quite similar to my classmates’, has also been vastly different,” Tossa said.
She calls Lockette her primary mentor at MU. “He’s someone that I’ve grown very close to as I’ve gone through the program,” she said. “His door is always open.”
But she’s quick to point out that Lockette is open to meeting with any student, not just minority students.
‘Raw numbers tell the story’
Patrick Delafontaine, the dean of the School of Medicine, came to MU about a month after Lockette’s arrival. The two have worked closely on diversity initiatives, and Delafontaine views Lockette as an asset to the school.
In a Missourian interview in March, Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said he sees Lockette as a key piece of the school’s diversity improvement goals.
“It’s pretty clear to me that the raw numbers tell you the story, that we have very few people of color among the medical school faculty and among the student body as well,” Loftin said.
He said a lack of diversity is a campus-wide problem, but a problem in particular at the School of Medicine. And, he said, Lockette’s “impressive” background shows the new diversity dean has the ability to help fix that problem.
“Dr. Delafontaine is very, very optimistic about this person bringing on board ideas and energy to be able to help the medical school move in a good direction now,” Loftin said. “That’s clear to me.”
Lockette is the type of person who sees a number like 2.4 percent and views it as an opportunity rather than an insurmountable problem.
“I generally don’t do things that are easy,” Lockette said. “I don’t ever want to have an existential crisis and have to ask myself, ‘What value have I been?’ I want to look back and say I made some accomplishments for the social welfare.”
The climate around MU, both in the past and even now, has not welcomed diversity. During peaceful protests following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, racial epithets made the rounds on social media around campus. At some very heated campus forums this spring, Loftin fielded many questions about what he plans to do to make MU a more welcoming place for minorities. He said he hopes to unveil a campus-wide plan in a couple of months to help increase diversity at the university.
Berkley Hudson, an associate professor at the MU School of Journalism, is the chairman of a faculty committee devoted to race relations on campus. The first meeting of that committee, which will also have student and staff members, will be in the next two weeks. This campus-wide issue, he said, requires a campus-wide approach.
“Everyone I’ve talked to agrees that there needs to be a comprehensive way to address diversity and race relations across the campus at every level,” Hudson said. “The future of race relations is intertwined, as are all relations on campus.”
In the past two years, six black doctors, including one who joined the program in 2015, have left the school, according to faculty listings. A climate report involving 3,000 participants from the School of Medicine in 2012 also raised red flags. That document, intended to spotlight problems in the program and help address them, was not made publicly available.
“I think we’re dramatically underrepresented in faculty, students and residents in African-American population,” one unnamed department chair is quoted as saying in the report. “Certainly in Hispanic or Latino populations, too. And Native American populations, if you’re looking for ethnic groups.”
“We’ve been told that Mizzou has a very racist reputation,” one survey participant said. “I don’t have any clue whether that’s true. We’ve been told that, so.”
The most damning statement: The medical school only talks about diversity because it has to. The results, according to respondents, weren’t important.
“Appearance” was the school’s priority, one person said in the climate report. “Appear that we are diverse, appear that we’re doing something about it, appear that we care.”
Invisible and unheard
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp was the diversity coordinator for medical education at MU in charge of recruitment of underrepresented minorities to the School of Medicine. She said she left the position because she wasn’t given the resources to be effective.
“If people aren’t on board for diversity work, you just are essentially every day running up a hill,” she said. “The reason why the report’s important is it tells you something they’re not telling you. They have a very real climate problem.”
In his four months at the post, Lockette has begun gathering information about that issue. Students at the school said it’s easy enough to see. Walk the hallways of the sprawling School of Medicine, and you’ll be hard-pressed to spot a black student, much less a faculty member.
At times, said Wilson-Kleekamp, who still lives in Columbia and describes herself as a minority advocate, African Americans can feel alone in such a homogenized environment.
“Black people are not visible,” she said, not just in the School of Medicine, but campus-wide. “They’re not heard.”
The climate problem is corroborated by data from a September 2014 study on MU by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education. That research showed one in five faculty members of color were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with their jobs.
Administrators acknowledge the numbers, and Lockette doesn’t hide from them, either. They’re why he’s here.
“The questions we’re asking at Mizzou are no different from the questions we’re asking at any other university,” Lockette said. “I think the issue of diversity is one that is nationwide. It’s not unique to Missouri.”
He takes what he calls a panoramic view of diversity. His vision includes women, veterans, people with disabilities and any other marginalized populations that are underrepresented in medical fields. Diversity of experience and ideas, he said, is as important as diversity of race and ethnicity.
“You’ve got a tremendous infrastructure here,” he said. “Everything is in play here for us to continue to be a leader in scientific inquiry. It’s important that we continue to provide opportunities for underrepresented populations to also participate as we grow those areas.”
That’s something that hasn’t been said enough, in his view.
“Education is one of the two things that can’t be taken away from you,” Lockette said. “What a valuable commodity that is … and I want every student, faculty, community member, staff member, to have opportunities to get that kind of education because that’s how you become successful.”
What else can’t be taken away?
That’s the question, and it’s his most important answer because it suggests he won’t give up easily.
“Integrity. You can only give that away.”
Crafting a vision
Lockette is an avid hockey player who didn’t learn how to skate until he was an “old man.” He’ll tell you he’s an awful player, but he plays harder than anyone on the ice — when he has time to get out there, anyway.
In Lockette’s office is a caricature of him wearing a hockey jersey with a stick in hand and a helmet on his head. Pentagon employees got it for him when he left for the MU job. It also features a bag of Cheetos — he has a reputation as an unhealthy eater, and the top drawer of his filing cabinet proves it. And right there, in a word bubble on the canvas, off to the right of the drawing’s oversized head, are the words “Open, honest, transparent.”
His success in creating an environment that reflects those three values will depend, he said, on the “critical mass of like-minded people.” Given the patterns at the School of Medicine in the past few years, it’s unclear how many people feel as he does — that the lack of diversity is a problem that needs to be solved.
“The 2012 climate report provided us with data that will help us make systems improvements. It reinforces that while we have made some progress, we have additional work to do in order to create the ideal learning environment for all of our students,” Lockette said. “If we are to offer the best to our students and the citizens of Missouri, we cannot be satisfied with the status quo.”