Women’s History Month: The Change Maker

Issue Date: 
March 24, 2008


Paula Davis’ ties to the University of Pittsburgh are deep, both academically and professionally. Not only did she receive her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pitt, but she also has worked at the University for all but five of the past 20 years. Her newest responsibility: to ensure that Pitt’s schools of the health sciences keep up with the changing face of the United States.

In an ideal world, that means students, faculty, and trainees in Pitt’s six schools of the health sciences—including the School of Medicine—will reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the patients whom they treat in clinics, medical offices, community-based programs, and hospitals across the country.

“Pitt is committed to ensuring the face of the health sciences reflects the face of the country, and that regardless of a student’s background, he or she will be prepared to deal with any cultural differences with their patients,” says Davis, who until January was the assistant dean of admissions, financial aid, and diversity in the University’s School of Medicine. Davis made consistent and strong progress in recruiting top underrepresented students: 50 percent of the current medical students are female and 14 percent of this past year’s entering class are from underrepresented groups.

Those successes resulted in Davis being promoted to assistant vice chancellor for diversity for the schools of the health sciences. In her new role, she oversees programs to replicate the medical school’s diversity successes in the other five health sciences schools: dental medicine, nursing, pharmacy, health and rehabilitation sciences, and the Graduate School of Public Health.

Some people might call Davis a change maker. Others might call her “Mom,” mentor, or friend. Throughout her career at Pitt, she has earned a reputation for being a “doer” and a shepherd of sorts—to underrepresented students and others as well—in trying to ease the rough edges of a medical student’s first year and beyond. One of her most recent projects is coordinating Pitt’s role in a pilot program called AspiringDocs.org. Sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the program seeks to encourage more well-prepared African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American students to pursue careers in medicine. AspiringDocs.org kicked off its outreach program at four universities across the United States, including Pitt.

In announcing Davis’ appointment in January, Arthur S. Levine, dean of the medical school and senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, said “Given Paula’s consistent, outstanding performance in addressing issues of diversity in the School of Medicine and the clear regard our medical students have for her and her team, I have asked Paula to extend her services to the other five health sciences schools. I am certain that, under Ms. Davis’ leadership, all six schools of the health sciences will have success in identifying, attracting, and retaining diverse student and faculty populations.”

Davis’ ties to Pitt go back to the late 1970s. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English writing in 1981 and began working as a counselor and program manager at Pitt while working on a master’s degree in speech, rhetoric, and communication. She received her master’s degree in 1985. After a five-year post at Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, Davis rejoined Pitt in 1994 as a program director in the School of Medicine. She was promoted to assistant dean of student affairs and director of minority programs in 1997. It was in this role that Davis became, in 2003, the first individual to win the Chancellor’s Affirmative Action Award, an honor normally bestowed upon campus organizations or programs.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg lauded her programmatic achievements in creating the first “Minority Weekend” at the school and her successful work for the Summer Premedical Academic Enrichment Program for high school students and the Student National Medical Association.

Nordenberg also praised Davis for her role in implementing the Education in Cultural Competence Opportunity program. The pilot program taught second-year medical school students how to be sensitive to cultural and racial differences in health behaviors and belief systems. That pilot spawned some changes in the medical school’s curriculum and was presented at the 2001 national meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

In his comments, Nordenberg also took special note of the interpersonal aspects of her work: “It is significant that a medical school student took the time to nominate Ms. Davis,” he said. “In his letter, Mr. McCrea (then-third-year medical student Leon McCrea) praised Ms. Davis as an advisor, mentor, friend, and confidant to the minority medical school students. He said that Davis has ‘created a space within the hallowed walls of the medical school, where it feels like home.’”

That feeling of home, Davis says, is one of the keys to recruitment at Pitt.

“We want to set up a situation where we can provide comfortable roots and be as welcoming an institution as possible,” she said. “We have students coming to the health professions schools—which are rigorous enough in their academic demands—and leaving behind their undergraduate mentors and family, the people they trust to look out for their well-being. At the same time, they’re interacting with patients for the first time and deciding on a course of study to determine the best fit for their clinical or professional practice.

“That’s a lot of stressors all at the same time,” Davis pointed out.

Both she and the students take the “home” analogy seriously: Davis refers to the students as her “kids,” just as more than one has referred to her as “Mom.”

“Paula was able to give you a pat on the back or hug and words of support when they were needed,” said McCrea, now a resident physician in family medicine at the Crozer-Keystone Health System in Upland, Pa., south of Philadelphia. “Even more importantly, though, she was comfortable letting you know when you weren’t on the right track and gave the tough love that was required.”

One of the biggest obstacles Davis faces in getting students to choose Pitt as their new “home” is a financial one.

The Pitt health sciences schools’ rise to international prominence means that they now compete for students with health sciences schools at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, and Duke universities, among others. For the most part, those schools have substantially larger endowments and/or far more state aid than Pitt has.

For medical, dental, and other health sciences students—who can graduate with substantial debt—student aid is crucial and is one of the major factors when a student, underrepresented or not, chooses another school. As a result of those financial pressures, a crucial part of Davis’ job is visiting potential donors, including philanthropies and alumni.

Frequently, alumni remark about the changes in the health professions schools, all of which have transformed themselves from regional schools to international powerhouses devoted to health professions education and research.

“Some of the alums lament the change,” she said. “But most are proud of the changes, as proud as I am to carry the Pitt banner.”

See related story: AspiringDocs day to be held March 25 on Pittsburgh Campus