100 Years of ADEA: Dr. Dennis Mitchell


Dennis A. Mitchell, D.D.S., M.P.H.

Executive Vice President for University Life
Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement
Professor of Dental Medicine
Columbia University College of Dental Medicine

Dr. Dennis Mitchell, 2022 ADEA Distinguished Service Award winner, has led by example in dental education for many years by helping to implement diversity and diversity initiatives as Executive Vice President for University Life and Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Columbia University. As a champion of pathway programs for historically underrepresented racial and ethnic (HURE) students and LGBTQ+ initiatives, Dr. Mitchell sees improvements in diversifying faculty and students in the health professions but acknowledges university leadership has to “double down” its efforts to create a more sustainable path forward and ensure real diversity, equity and inclusion.

Q. Why did you pursue the dental profession?

My education and career choices were largely influenced by my parents, who were educators who emigrated to Canada from Trinidad, as well as two of my uncles. Like all of my friends in Canada, I had planned to attend the University of Toronto. As I was preparing for college, an uncle who was completing his doctorate at Harvard suggested that I apply there. Expanding my search to other U.S. colleges, I attended Cornell, where I was offered a scholarship.

Graduating as a neurobiology and behavior major, my course was set for medical school. At this point, another uncle, a dentist in New York, invited me to spend spring break with him. After seeing firsthand the impact he had on his patients—setting them at ease, taking them out of pain and giving them confidence to smile again—I was hooked. I deferred my enrollment to medical school and applied to dental school. I headed to Howard University with plans to enter private practice with my uncle, but my experiences at Howard, and later, Columbia, opened my eyes to a career in academic dentistry.

Q. You were given the 2022 ADEA Distinguished Service Award for your many achievements, including being a champion for diversity and diversity initiatives in dental education at Columbia University and in dental education, in general. How have you seen diversity and diversity initiatives evolve within your own institution and in dental education over the years? Have you seen progress?

I was honored to receive this award, and share credit with my many mentors for my success. As Executive Vice President for University Life and Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement at Columbia, I have seen how enhancing the diversity of the faculty pays tremendous dividends. We hear from students that they don’t have enough faculty who look like them, who speak their language, or who share their gender identity, especially in the STEM fields. I think the progress we are making to increase faculty diversity improves the community for all of us, and especially those from groups that have been historically underrepresented in academia.

In the time I have been in the Office of the Provost, there has been a considerable shift with regard to LGBTQ+ initiatives . In 2016, we launched the LGBTQ+ Scholarship Initiative to advance the recruitment of outstanding faculty engaged in LGBTQ+ scholarship. In 2021, we produced the Columbia University LGBTQ+ Guide , which we shared in a presentation we developed with the leadership of the ADEA Section on PRIDE.

In addition, the pandemic, along with the murder of George Floyd, created a watershed moment for our work. Prior to 2020, our language in this space was focused on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Columbia’s leadership began using the term “antiracist”, and programming and initiatives used more strident language. The Race and Racism Scholarship cluster hire program and the task force to address anti-Black racism are just two of many such efforts.

Q. You've supported pathway programs like the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP), even serving as a Co-principal Investigator. How are programs like SHPEP addressing diversity and inclusion in dentistry and dental education?

The Dental Pilot Program for Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s then Minority Medical Education Program, now known as SHPEP, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Summer Public Health Scholars Program, were instrumental in bringing approximately 125 young men and women of color to the Columbia campus every summer. Over 85% of these young men and women have successfully matriculated to medical and dental schools all around the nation.

Our focus really began with earnest incentive efforts targeted to recruitment of faculty. As we progressed in this work, it was clear that culture and climate were just as important to retain and support faculty in order for them to thrive. As we move forward, it is also clear that our next priority should be developing sustainable pathways programs to increase the pool of eligible candidates. We have seen the benefits of such programs to entice underrepresented students to come to attend undergrad and professional school programs at Columbia and elsewhere. In addition, Columbia’s Inclusive Faculty Pathways initiative aims to expose young people to professional and career development training.

Q. The population of Black, Latino, and Native American men in the dental profession (and health professions, in general) continues to remain low. There have been initiatives in the past to address this issue but with little success. With new initiatives and calls-to-action emerging, what do you think has to be done differently to get the intended results this time around?

Because of today’s politically charged environment, it is even more critical to double down on programming targeted to the audiences that we need to engage. Buy-in from central university administration is also crucial. Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, said that “the work of building a diverse university environment does not occur quickly or simply; it requires sustained attention from all of us.” The 2020 murder of George Floyd was also a pivotal moment in our work. COVID-19 lockdowns created a captive audience around the world, and people started to listen to calls to dismantle white supremacy in the academy and elsewhere.

Q. Which of your accomplishments in relationship to ADEA and/or dental education, in general, are you most proud of?

If you asked me two years ago what I was most proud of in my career, I would have said increasing the diversity of Columbia’s dental school student population from 3% to 20% of underrepresented students and sustaining that for 13 years. Today, my answer is different. The racial reckoning of 2020 provided me with the opportunity to accelerate our faculty diversity work by using a framework we had already put in place. In the past two years, Columbia has seen the unprecedented hiring of Black and brown faculty, in part because of our Race and Racism Scholarship cluster hire initiative . Whether this will result in a systemic change that will maintain itself over time is yet unclear, but we can celebrate this success.