Associate Professor Mayur Desai, MPH ’94, PhD ’97, has spent his career working on improving quality of care and health care equity.
He hopes to bring that same drive and energy to his new position as the Yale School of Public Health’s inaugural associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A four-time recipient of the YSPH Distinguished Teaching Award, the school’s highest honor, Desai recently discussed diversity, equity, and inclusion at YSPH and some of his plans moving forward.
What ideas do you have for building a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse community at YSPH?
MD: Even as we work to further diversify our student body, staff, and faculty, I think it’s important to recognize and appreciate our diversity along so many axes. I want to work with YSPH’s Diversity Committee, affinity groups, student diversity ambassadors, and anyone with ideas to share, to find ways of celebrating our diversity and making sure that everyone in our community feels a genuine sense of belonging and of feeling supported, especially in this divisive political climate. This will take the form of not only continuing student-led activities, such as the annual intersectionality dinner, but also supporting the creation of new affinity groups and community-wide initiatives. One of the many wonderful things about people in public health is our unwavering commitment to equity, justice, and improving the health and well-being of the communities that we serve. I would like to see some of that passion directed inward in order to make sure everyone at YSPH feels welcomed, valued, and respected to improve our collective well-being.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core values of YSPH. How do you see an expansion of these principles – through your role as associate dean – impacting the school’s mission in terms of learning and instruction?
MD: YSPH has long offered both epidemiology and policy courses focused on health disparities. In recent years, we have expanded our curriculum to include courses addressing stigma and the health of marginalized populations, as well as a new core course for all MPH students focused on social justice and health equity. Now, a committee led by Professor Danya Keene is developing a cross-departmental concentration that will prepare students to analyze and address systems that perpetuate health injustice. Students will examine how historical and current systems of privilege and power create unequal burdens of disease and disability that are avoidable and unjust. Students also will develop organizing, advocacy, and policy skills to advance health equity and justice. The new concentration will combine rigorous academic training with experiential learning. This is an exciting, innovative development that builds on YSPH’s mission, vision, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I look forward to enthusiastically supporting it however I can.
How do you feel your experience as an instructor and researcher has prepared you for this new role?
The core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the heart of what we do.
MD: It is hard to feel completely prepared, but I think my responsiveness to students; my willingness to listen, learn, and try new things (even at the risk of missteps along the way); and my data-driven approach to problem solving and program evaluation will put me in good stead as I grow into this new role.
Your research focuses on improving health outcomes for vulnerable populations. Has social justice always played a prominent role in your professional career or interests?
MD: Yes. At the risk of sounding trite or Pollyannaish, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of contributing to the public good and advancing social justice. I suspect that, like most of us in public health, I see our work – which affects everyone in every community – as rooted in social justice. I’ve had an opportunity to learn from and work with amazing colleagues on a range of projects – from studying the quality of care provided to veterans with psychiatric and substance use disorders to developing quality measures for Medicare beneficiaries, and from studying infectious and non-communicable diseases in numerous settings to strengthening health systems in low-income countries. A common thread running through all this work is an emphasis on health equity and improving access, quality, and outcomes of care for diverse and vulnerable populations.
Why are you interested in social justice? What has drawn you personally into this realm of public health?
MD: I discovered public health and realized that I’d found my calling. One of the things that drew me to public health – besides its focus on social justice and the opportunity to have a profound impact on the health and well-being of others – is the tremendous interdisciplinary nature of our work. We can’t do it alone. The core values of diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the heart of what we do. Our successes depend on the creativity, contributions, and expertise of so many people in so many different fields working in concert. This provides an endless opportunity to learn new things and see things from different perspectives.
Have you ever witnessed or experienced bias or resistance personally or professionally because of your ethnicity?
MD: Unfortunately, yes. Like so many individuals of color who grew up in an immigrant family, I have painful memories of people hurling racial slurs at my parents because of their accent and dress. My family and I have been told to go back to where we came from. Nevertheless, I believe in the inherent goodness of people and in our capacity to do great things when we see our diversity as a strength, respect one another, and value everyone’s contributions.