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Letters

Letter to the Editor: The Work We’re Doing (and Still Must Do) in Biostatistics

By John Quackenbush
John Quackenbush is the Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and Chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In his op-ed (August 4), Dr. Alex Ocampo shared personal experiences as a student in the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He described perceptions of systemic racism and the department being unresponsive to our students of color. We acknowledge that systemic racism and both implicit and explicit bias are issues that we must continue to struggle against. The gravity of these issues is why, as chair of the department, I must respond to his op-ed.

First, Dr. Ocampo commented on an email that I sent to our department regarding our ongoing efforts to tackle challenges regarding issues of racism, diversity, and inclusion. Our department has long recognized the importance of understanding and addressing the needs of faculty, staff, and students of color and other historically marginalized groups. For nearly thirty years, we have offered programs that demonstrate our commitment including programs directed at recruiting, retaining, and supporting students of color.

We also recognize the need for continual improvement and actively seek input from our departmental constituencies. In my two years as chair, this has included conversations with Dr. Ocampo, at his request, and other students, that have resulted in changes in our programs. The recent email that Dr. Ocampo mentions was not a newfound call to action. Rather, it was a reaffirmation of the department’s (and my own) commitment to our students, faculty, and staff of color, and an attempt to seize upon the momentum of the moment to foster even more open communication and further advance and improve our programs.

Second, Dr. Ocampo provided an example suggesting there is an active effort in our department to drop students of color from the program. While I cannot comment on the confidential reasons associated with any student’s departure, I can avow that we would never actively seek to remove students of color or hinder their success. No one would disagree with Dr. Ocampo that bringing students into the program only to cast them aside would be cruel; there is no moral, ethical, or practical justification to do so and would violate our department’s core principles. We stand committed to attracting and retaining outstanding students of all identities and backgrounds, and providing them with exceptional training so they can successfully move into leadership positions in the field.

Lastly, the op-ed offers examples of Ph.D. students of color who took longer than five years to complete the program. Our students’ needs and trajectories toward degree completion vary, as is natural and expected, making it vital that we work closely with and support everyone throughout their time in the program. Our unwavering and ongoing commitment to the academic welfare and success of our students would never allow us to systematically keep some students in the program longer than others.

While Dr. Ocampo’s perception of our department and its Ph.D. program may differ from mine, I appreciate the significance of his op-ed because it reconfirms the importance of what lies at the heart of my previously mentioned email — the need to communicate more effectively with each other and to better appreciate the challenges that each of us faces, including those unique to our students of color. As Dr. Ocampo’s letter suggests, a continued open dialogue can only improve our mutual understanding and provide valuable insights for how to better support our students of color. We will be convening constituent groups within the Biostatistics department to develop concrete action items related to these issues as we go forward this year.

John Quackenbush is the Henry Pickering Walcott Professor of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and Chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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