Former Harvard Med dean says removing portraits of white men doesn't promote diversity

In an opinion column for The Boston Globe, Jeffrey Flier, MD, former dean of Harvard Medical School, makes the case that removing all 31 portraits of past leaders — almost all white men — from the walls of a medical school lecture hall was a mistake.

Last year, Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, made plans to remove 31 oil portraits from its Louis Bornstein Family Amphitheater under the leadership of Brigham Health President Elizabeth Nabel, MD. Dr. Nabel made the decision based on staff feedback and used it to signal that the organization was moving toward a more diverse future.

Dr. Flier first noticed the blank walls several weeks ago, but he wrote that he believes removing the portraits was a mistake. "What I experienced was not diversity, but sterility," he wrote in the op-ed. He reports that senior professors told him discussion about the issue was "no longer possible."

This sentiment led him to write the op-ed. On Twitter, Dr. Flier wrote: "More than anything else, it was the explicit fear of speaking out against this by faculty at all levels that drove me to write this piece. I felt I had to do this, and that others more vulnerable to false criticism might then speak their minds."

Dr. Flier writes that the portraits do not change the organization's history, nor do they affect current practice. 

"Unlike disputed portraits and statuary related to slavery and the Civil War, these men made contributions to medicine and research that stand up well to current scrutiny," he wrote.

He notes that progress has been made to increase diversity in gender, race and ethnicity at the organization. He suggests displaying a rotation of old portraits with new works that reflect the changing demographics of the medical school.

"Removing all the historic amphitheater portraits — leaving bare walls in their place for the past year — won't advance diversity. What might? An array of art that reflects today's rapidly changing physician leadership, while recognizing essential but less male-dominated health-related professions, such as nursing and social work."


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