Universities and other institutions often fall into the trap of viewing diversity, equity and inclusion only through a quantitative lens.
However, Maurice Cottman, who recently became the first director of diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, said those numbers alone do not provide an accurate picture.
“A lot of time with DEI work it can feel like checkmarks. We did that one training when we got hired – check. Oh look we met a new quota – check,” Cottman said. “The optics don’t matter to me if it doesn’t work. I look at my job as if I were a contractor – you can make the front of a house look amazing, but if you don’t check the plumbing, you probably shouldn’t buy it. And that is what optics are a lot of time. Optics are how good it looks, but is it actually working?”
Cottman officially joined the college on July 11 working in a remote capacity from his home in Philadelphia, where he had served as director for the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Drexel University for the past five years. He will arrive on campus early during the fall semester.
At Drexel, Cottman led the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion and helped to establish the university’s first official food pantry. He helped to create dozens of community engagement and building programs, in addition to serving as Drexel’s campus engagement contact for identity-based student organizations and as a co-chair for the institution’s Anti-Racism Task Force.
“We are thrilled that Maurice will be joining our team,” College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Dori Borjesson said. “He is highly engaging, thoughtful, and authentic. Maurice brings great experience and passion for academic program building to our college. He has outstanding communication and interpersonal skills, and I am delighted he has stepped up to lead our programs for students, staff, and faculty.”
According to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, the number of racially and ethnically underrepresented students currently is about 20% of total enrollment in the nation’s 32 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine.
“Some people might say, well people of color don’t want to be veterinarians, and that could be possible, but is it more probable that there are burdens and barriers in place for some people?” Cottman said. “We have to look at ourselves, our policies and procedures and the external things that are happening.”
Cottman said the field is ripe for positive change. He plans to implement a three-pillar system focusing on pre-arrival for faculty, staff, and students, including how programs are marketed, recruiting and interviews; community life; and alumni engagement.
“There are so many opportunities to make a dramatic shift in veterinary medicine,” he said. “I am one of those people who try to think really big about the shockwaves that can happen, and if we do it right at WSU, we could possibly change the entire industry.”
Cottman said a concerted effort and many tough, uncomfortable conversations were needed to make that a reality.
“A lot of people think we’ve got Black people, we’ve got Latin people, we’ve got X, Y, and Z people, but those are just numbers, and numbers don’t give the full story,” he said. “It is not about we need a specific number because it looks bad. To me, it is about someone having the ability to be who they are and to flourish. It is not just about being here – it is what is it like when you are here.”