Trailblazing can be a lonely role. For those who were among the first Black faculty members at University of Arizona Health Sciences colleges, making an impact and watching continued progress is important to acknowledge during Black History Month.
Some navigated the tumultuous late 1960s, when America was wracked with discord over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement. Some continued to guide during the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd in 2020. Regardless of the time, these faculty members continued to advocate for all.
Institutional focus on forward progress
Marie A. Chisholm-Burns, PharmD, PhD, MPH, MBA, was not the first Black faculty member at the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy, the oldest of the Health Sciences colleges, but she was the first Black department head. She began leading the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science in 2006 and made a big impression, earning a spot on the UArizona Women’s Plaza of Honor.
One of her biggest supporters, she said, was Ted Tong, PharmD, who met her at the Tucson airport on her recruitment visit. Dr. Tong brought Wilma and Wilbur Wildcat dolls for her then 3-year-old son.
“It was just a tremendous achievement to bring Marie from where she was at, which was the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy,” Dr. Tong said.
During her recruitment visit, Dr. Chisholm-Burns was introduced to other Black people on campus and in the community. Still, she acknowledged there were times she was lonely in Tucson. Coming from Augusta, Georgia, where more than 57% of residents are Black, to Tucson, where 5% of the population is Black, was difficult, she said.
She talked about the bridge her parents, who didn’t graduate high school, and godmother, who served in the New York State Legislature for 30 years, built for her to succeed in college and throughout her career. For her, success in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) programs means always moving forward.
“I think about my colleagues and experiences at the University of Arizona very fondly.”
Marie A. Chisholm-Burns, PharmD, PhD, MPH, MBA
“Continuous quality improvement – that's something we use in health care all the time. When the George Floyd incident happened, every organization in the world wanted to put out a statement, ‘We support EDI. Let's go out and hire an EDI person. Let's do that.’ And then EDI efforts become like shoes in fashion. I don't want it to fall out of fashion because we still got a lot of work to do,” she said.
Dr. Chisholm-Burns left UArizona in 2012 to join the University of Tennessee Health Science Center as dean of the College of Pharmacy. In July 2022, she became executive vice president, provost and an endowed professor at the Oregon Health and Science University. In December, she was presented with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists Board of Directors’ Distinguished Leadership Award.
“I think about my colleagues and experiences at UArizona very fondly, so fondly that, when I was at UT, I probably visited the University of Arizona at least three times for talks. Every couple of years, I came back to UArizona. If everything lines up, in April I will be visiting for a couple of talks and to meet with new faculty.”
Team building without blinders
Jocelyn Nelms, MS, NEd, RN, a UArizona College of Nursing lecturer for over 15 years, was among the first Black faculty members in the College of Nursing. She teaches in the Master of Science for Entry to the Profession of Nursing Program and is a member of the college’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
A cardiovascular ICU nurse, she followed her grandmother, great aunt and aunt into the nursing profession. She picked UArizona over two rival in-state programs and Vanderbilt University for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing studies. As a faculty member, Nelms said she’s felt a lot of support from her alma mater and, as a student, from resources like the New Start Summer immersion program and the African-American Cultural Resource center.
“I was able to connect with people in different ways. For me, it was more about not being a protester,” she said. “I don't protest. Instead, it's quietly changing things, one person at a time.”
Nelms uses her personal example to move things forward by encouraging people to work for better and not accept the status quo. She helped launched a pilot project, “The Workplace We Want,” that incorporated “team charter” and “Wildcat bond” concepts to overcome race, ethnicity and age differences among personnel for teambuilding.
Faded memories afresh in a new era
James C. Dunn Sr., MD, was among the earliest Black faculty members at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson. Dr. Dunn taught gross anatomy and basic surgical skills as a lecturer in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine from 1978 to his retirement in 2015. He died in 2019, but left a legacy.
“Dr. Dunn was an outstanding individual,” noted Lehman Benson, III, PhD, vice president for Black advancement and engagement at UArizona. “He was intent on helping improve diversity in medical student success and equity in health care for African Americans,” Dr. Benson said.
Smithie Dunn, Dr. Dunn’s wife, said he was proud of the students he taught, particularly those of color, and he never missed a graduation ceremony. “He was almost as proud as their parents. He loved teaching,” she said.
Carol Gregorio, PhD, said in a 2019 article on his passing, “Dr. Dunn was one of the friendliest, most optimistic people I ever met. His passion for our medical students and commitment to their success was unmistakable. He frequently used hours of his free time to train them.”
“I enjoyed his lectures,” said Kevin Moynahan, MD, who took anatomy class with Dr. Dunn as a UArizona medical student in the early ’90s and is now the College of Medicine – Tucson’s vice dean for education and a professor of medicine. “I think he was the only African American professor I had during my pre-clerkship years. He was certainly a pioneer in that regard. I respected him greatly.”
New kid on the block
The College of Medicine – Phoenix opened its four-year medical education program in 2007. Nafis Shamsid-Deen, MD, FCCP, joined the faculty in 2020 as one of the first Black faculty and was the first Black faculty member in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine.
He recently was named the college’s diversity director for graduate medical education. He plans to streamline metrics to track diversity, equity and inclusion goals and expand outreach to all GME programs and undergraduate student clubs, including the Student National Medical Association and Latino Medical Student Association.
Donna "Ricki" Long, MD, served on the College of Medicine - Phoenix faculty from 2008 to 2020, teaching students, residents and fellow physicians on the critical care service at Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix until she retired.
Zeroed in on nutrition, public health
Sheila Hill Parker, DrPH, MPH, MS, can claim honors as a founding faculty member for the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health in 2000. But her UArizona Health Sciences career began a decade before as an instructor and investigator in community and health related programs at the College of Medicine – Tucson. That includes the School of Health Professions and the Arizona Graduate Program in Public Health, for which she also was among the first Black faculty members, if not the first.
Dr. Parker enjoyed a long history of working with community agencies to improve nutritional and health status of individuals, families and communities. She chaired the College of Public Health’s Health Education Program for undergraduates and taught in the Master of Science in Public Health degree program until her retirement in 2006. She returned in 2010 as a part-time lecturer in the Health Promotion Division and retired again in June 2021 as an associate professor.
“While I am very blessed to have had those experiences, they were not always easy as you can imagine,” Dr. Parker said. “Yes, there were many challenges, trials and tribulations – but I do not want to focus on those. Hopefully, God used me to help pave the way for many others, regardless of race and ethnicity.”
In a career over four decades, Dr. Parker said she’s pleased with contributions she made to the college’s development, but most proud of the students she taught who now serve in public health, health education and medicine.