UI dental students, IFR call for improved diversity, equity, and inclusion in College of Dentistry

Sharing stories of mistreatment towards marginalized students, faculty, and staff, UI dental students protested for a change of culture within the College of Dentistry.


Tate Hildyard

University students from the dental college marched to the College of Dentistry to protest unaddressed issues regarding the treatment of minority students on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. (Tate Hildyard/ The Daily Iowan)

Claire Benson, News Editor

University of Iowa College of Dentistry students and members of the Iowa Freedom Riders led a march on Friday after months of controversy over the College of Dentistry’s handling of diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns.

Students, faculty, staff, and community members marched from the Old Capitol building to the UI College of Dentistry — a 1.6 mile walk in 25 degree weather to share and listen to personal experiences from those formerly and currently involved with the College of Dentistry. 

Those marching highlighted the mistreatment and inappropriate behavior targeting marginalized students, faculty, and staff. 

While walking, chants of “this is what diversity looks like” and “put DEI in DDS” could be heard, along with the group demanding accountability from the college and the university. 

“We are here today because we’re at a pivotal moment where the University of Iowa can stop being complicit and start listening to their students,” UI fourth-year dental student and protest organizer Jasmine Butler said. “They have been preaching that their DEI initiatives are improving things like accountability. Well, what kind of accountability is ignoring years and years of complaints about the same faculty who specifically target marginalized students?”

In October 2020, the college sent an email to all dentistry students and faculty condemning an executive order from former President Trump that caused the UI to halt all diversity, equity, and inclusion training. The order sparked controversy on campus, because it did not acknowledge the existence of systemic racism, and called for more “patriotic” DEI trainings.

College of Dentistry student Michael Brase then hit “reply all” on the college-wide email, saying he was disappointed in the college’s stance on the order. This prompted replies from other students and faculty members, with some saying they don’t agree with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The state Legislature has since become involved in the College of Dentistry’s DEI concerns after Brase contacted Republican legislators upon receiving a letter from the college calling him to a disciplinary hearing for unprofessional behavior regarding the email thread. The college then canceled the hearing, but Republicans are using this story as an example of how conservative voices are allegedly being silenced on college campuses.

UI second-year dental student AJ Foley was one of the students at the protest who shared their personal experiences of mistreatment within the college. Foley said as a young Black man in the college, he found a lack of support, empathy, comfort, and security. Because of this, Foley said he even considered dropping out of his program at one point. 

Foley said dental school is hard enough, but having to worry about facing racism from other students, faculty, and staff has added further stress to his situation and has been distracting. 

Foley, along with other dental students, shared that once they joined the dentistry program, the college initially made promises of great support and opportunities for students of marginalized groups, something he said he found to be false. 

“They sell us a dream,” Foley said. “They sell us a dream that this is going to be a welcoming environment. They sell us a dream that at the drop of a hat they will be here to support the marginalized identities and that has not been the case.”

Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter was one of the first speakers at the event, promising that the dental students who came to her seeking help would receive help and a chance to have seat at the table for future discussions regarding the college and its diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. 

Porter is the first Black community member to be elected to the position as county supervisor, and also currently serves as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that works with the Iowa City City Council. 

“This is just the beginning,” Porter said. “There is going to be a change in Iowa City. This has been a long time coming.” 

Porter emphasized that to accomplish this improvement of diversity, equity, and inclusion not only just in the college but also in Johnson County as a whole, the community must effectively collaborate. 

Several dental students also shared stories that were submitted from former and current students, staff, and faculty members at the College of Dentistry. These stories were anonymously shared and highlighted incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and xenophobia within the college. 

Organizers distributed a petition created by dental students on change.org. The petition’s current goal is to receive 1,000 signatures to effectively implement diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and policies into the college.

The organizers also asked those in attendance to reflect on why they were participating in the event. 

Butler said those reasons – those “whys” – will be important influences on future action, especially action taken in support of positively changing the culture within the College of Dentistry and the UI. 

“I just want everyone to take a minute and think about your why,” Butler said. “Why are you out here in the middle of the day? Why are you out here in the middle of the day, on a Friday? Why are you out here in the middle of the day, on a Friday, standing in the snow and the freezing cold? You remember that, because your whys are what brought you out here today and your whys are what will inspire change and will guide you in all the actions that you take.