Is there a diversity controversy in optometry?

November 24, 2020
Jennifer Lyerly, OD

Dr. Lyerly is a 2011 graduate of Southern College of Optometry. She founded Eyedolatry in 2011, a media platform dedicated to patient-friendly and doctor-approved ocular health advice and industry news. She has successfully coordinated on media campaigns

How NECO is addressing diversity among optometry students

“$440,000—whew, that’s a lot of money,” Darryl Glover, OD, says during this livestream podcast episode. “It’s got a lot of people upset and a lot of people happy.”

The money he is referring to is the newly established scholarship donation to the New England College of Optometry by Warby Parker with a goal of increasing African American representation in the field of optometry.

Optometry schools have struggled to improve diversity of enrollment over the last decade; while African Americans make up 13.4% of the United States population, they represent just 2.7% of optometric students. The scholarship gift would cover 4 years of tuition for 2 black students. The gift is part of a larger initiative to increase diversity on campus, and NECO’s pledge as a part of the 13% Promise to increase the number of African American students and faculty to 13 percent of its demographics by 2025.

Related: The 13% Promise: Increasing racial diversity in optometry

Dr. Glover’s guest for this conversation is Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO, president of the New England College of Optometry. He is a second-generation optometrist and practiced with his father for a decade in private practice before transitioning to a role in academics when NOVA Southeastern University opened its optometry school. He went on to become the chief of cornea and contact lenses at NOVA. The next 25 years of his career were spent working with industry to better connect with optometrists, first with Johnson & Johnson Vision and then at Essilor.

Changes at NECO

Dr. Glover and Dr. Purcell reflect on the recent success of a new initiative to drive interest from African American students to optometry. The Impact HBCU event held in early October connected students at 107 historically black universities and colleges through a virtual program to introduces students to the opportunities in vision care. Over 130 students attended the virtual event, and Dr. Purcell says that NECO has already received contact from students who are interested in learning more about applying to optometry school from this program.

One of the key initiatives that Dr. Purcell has spearheaded at NECO is a focus on increasing diversity and inclusion both on campus and through outreach to potential students. Faculty member Angela B. Abraham, OD has recently been promoted at NECO as the diversity and inclusion liaison. She will work with the Alliance for the Advancement of Diversity and Inclusion, a group of faculty, students, and staff dedicated to leading on campus efforts.

NECO has also put together an external group: the Diversity and Inclusion Council, Dr. Purcell says. Leading the group is Janet LaBreck who served as the Comissioner of the Rehabilitative Services Administration under U.S. President Barack Obama.

“There are people who have been trying to do what we’re trying to do for a very long time, how do we tap in to some of that knowledge?” Dr. Purcell asks.

He says it is key to reach beyond optometry to draw from other professionals about how to improve relationships.

“It’s important to provide vehicles for feedback,” he says. “We created a hotline and an old-school anonymous information box on campus where people can leave comments and feedback about action items being taken.”

NECO’s portraits

The biggest driver of feedback (and Dr. Purcell says he has also received plenty of not-so-positive feedback about the school’s public acknowledgement of diversity) has been a change to the portraits lining the walls at NECO’s 125-year-old institution.

“All of those portraits represented white older men, and our history is so much more diverse than that,” Dr. Purcell says. “We felt it was really important to demonstrate that diversity. Let me be clear, we are not removing any of the portraits at the college. What we are doing is adding to them and showcasing the diversity of the people who have contributed.”

New faces on the walls at NECO include Benjamin Lambert, OD, who served as a senator, and Barbara Caffrey, OD, PhD, FAAO, immediate past-president of the American Academy of Optometry.

“For some reason people started tying it to the statues being taken down across the country. It was extremely frustrating,” Dr. Purcell says.

Warby Parker funding

The newly established Warby Parker scholarship has similarly drawn ire.

“In order to achieve the great goals that we have all set, we need the help of the eyecare industry,” Dr. Purcell says.

The first industry group to step up for this mission for increasing diversity was Warby Parker and its cofounder Neil Blumenthal.

“Neil is incredibly philanthropic. Warby Parker works with the New York school system and the Boston school system to give away millions of glasses to those in need,” Dr. Purcell says.

He shares that the dialogue with optometry over the past few years has changed the course of Warby Parker as a company, and its has moved away from a focus on online exam technology and has established exam lanes with practicing optometrists in over 50 percent of its brick-and-mortar locations.

Dr. Purcell says that the dialogue with eyecare industry partners that are operating outside of traditional eyecare models allows them to find common ground with optometry.

In the case of the newly founded scholarship, he says that it will help NECO better recruit the best students across the nation. And for doctors concerned about any strings attached, Dr. Purcell is very clear that this is not the case.

“Warby Parker dictates nothing about how we use the money. There is no quid pro quo. There is nothing here other than them giving us some money,” he says.

Adding more partners

Warby Parker is not the only group that is interested in reaching optometry students and building relationships as possible future employers, according to Dr. Purcell.

“It is a critically important issue that people who want to hire our graduates have access. But there is inequity here,” he says.

Dr. Purcell says that all employer recruitment contact currently must occur off campus. For a larger corporate retailer, hosting a school-wide dinner event off campus is within the budget. But for a smaller private practice looking to hire one or two associate doctors, that opportunity is not financially reasonable.

Rethinking access to potential employers to make a more even playing field is something that Dr. Purcell is focused on.

He says: “We have to do a better job, but I want it to be equitable. I want our small private practices to have the same opportunity.”

What does Dr. Purcell want to see other optometrists and optometry schools work to achieve?

He says: “We have to go outside a little bit, and we have to learn from others. Let’s not just think that everything can be solved right within our own little world. Let’s be willing to go beyond and keep an open mind. And lastly, let’s talk to each other. If we don’t agree, let’s have a dialogue and at least understand where each other is coming from.”