UCSF Appoints First-Ever Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Outreach

By Lisa Cisneros

As a young, African-American girl growing up in Mobile, Alabama, during the time of Jim Crow laws, J. Renee Navarro remembers walking with her mother and having to cross the street because White people were approaching.

Navarro recalls questioning her mother, struggling to understand why that could be, sensing the injustice, indignity and unfairness of the racial segregation laws.

Now as UCSF’s first vice chancellor of diversity and outreach and its first African American woman to serve as vice chancellor, Navarro will lead the University’s efforts to create a culture of inclusion and equity for all.

In many ways, Navarro has been working to open doors, remove barriers and promote equity for women and underrepresented minorities throughout her life.

“I really have spent my whole life working on issues related to diversity,” says Navarro, a clinical professor of anesthesia and perioperative care. “I am pleased to be able to contribute to UCSF by expanding our diversity and outreach efforts which will lead to greater recognition of this esteemed institution.  I view this as a wonderful opportunity to expand, coordinate and showcase our programs, opportunities and inclusiveness.”

The UC Regents approved the high-level appointment, effective immediately. The position gives Navarro a seat on the Chancellor’s Executive Cabinet and she will report directly to UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH.

“Renee brings to this role a deep understanding of UCSF, a long-standing commitment to diversity and a demonstrated track record for working collaboratively with multiple groups to achieve results,” Desmond-Hellmann said in her announcement. “Renee’s deep personal and professional commitment to diversity and outreach is valued and respected by her colleagues and distinguishes her as a leader in these areas. Her work in mentoring, diversity, and women’s leadership has been recognized campuswide, citywide, and nationwide.”

In the first six months of her new role, Navarro’s first goal will be to develop a strategic plan that enhances UCSF’s efforts to nurture diversity and strengthen outreach efforts, in alignment with the University’s mission and priorities. The new strategic plan will be build upon the one released in 2007, defining and developing specific measures and metrics to achieve the overarching goal to “educate, train and employ a diverse faculty, staff and student body.”

Navarro realizes her new post has a long to-do list and many diverse constituencies to serve at a time when the University is seeking to coordinate and streamline campuswide operations to achieve operational efficiencies and positive results.

“I’m excited because even though the challenges are large and the job is large, the number of people who are so committed and engaged in nurturing diversity is also large,” Navarro said. “I feel that I’m not in this alone and will work together to develop this plan. I will have conversations with students, faculty and staff to ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.”

Pursuing a Career in Patient Care

The fifth of six children born to William and Rebertha, Navarro moved with the family from Alabama to California in 1966 when she was six years old. Her father, who was employed by the Air Force, had a choice between relocating to Texas or the Golden State. With her mother’s urging to move to California for its strong public school system, the family settled in Sacramento.

Her mother, who had a knack for getting her way, also provided direction to Navarro’s career path.  “My mother started saying, ‘You’re so smart. You should be a doctor.’ But she had no understanding of what it would take for me to attend medical school.’”

At first the notion seemed far-fetched, Navarro says, recalling that she had not seen a black doctor until she was well into her teen-age years. But having come from a family of strong-willed women, Navarro’s interest was peaked.  Actually, both she and her mother demonstrate determination and strong work ethic. Her mother, who is the daughter of sharecroppers in the South, went to college when Renee was in middle school and earned her master’s degree in special education. Now in her seventies, her mother continues to substitute teach in public schools.

To get a feel for a career in life sciences, Navarro job shadowed a pharmacist at a local drug store. The experience prompted her decision to pursue a degree in pharmacy and she earned her PharmD degree at the University of the Pacific in a five-year accelerated program. While working as a clinical pharmacist, she was exposed to patient care and enjoyed the interaction with other health professionals.

“While working as a clinical pharmacist, I was exposed to medical residents and it was just a matter of gaining confidence that I could practice medicine, too. I knew I could make a difference in patient care,” she said.

Navarro then applied to and was accepted at UCSF, where she graduated from the School of Medicine in 1986. Her colleagues during that time include Andre Campbell, MD, and Kevin Grumbach, MD, both UCSF leaders in their own right.

She served a one-year internship in internal medicine at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and returned to UCSF for a three-year residency in anesthesiology. Because of the support of her mentor, Cedric Bainton, Navarro joined the UCSF faculty in 1990 as an assistant professor in residence in the Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Care. She became acting chief of anesthesia during her second year on the faculty. 

As a medical student, her first job was working as a pharmacist at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH), where she continues to serve with faculty and staff who are strongly committed to providing culturally competent and compassionate care and serving a diverse patient population at the City’s only safety-net hospital and trauma center.

During her 20-year career, Navarro has held many clinical and administrative leadership positions within UCSF and at SFGH, including medical director, chief of medical staff and associate dean for academic affairs in the UCSF School of Medicine. Navarro plans to continue treating trauma patients as an anesthesiologist at SFGH one day a week.

Promoting Diversity at UCSF and Beyond

In August 2007, Navarro was promoted to director of Academic Diversity, a new position created as part of 10 key outcomes outlined in UCSF’s diversity initiative, which was unveiled in February of that year. Navarro, who has served on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Academic Diversity and now on the Council of Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion, has been working on several diversity-related fronts at UCSF and beyond. These efforts include:

  • Developing and implementing the academic demographic system, an academic faculty database to track faculty applicants, national availability data, and providing search committees with recruitment advice;

  • facilitating implementation of changes to the Academic Personnel Manual that recognize contributions faculty make to diversity as a part of the promotions process;

  • reaching out to diverse groups of faculty, students and trainees to listen to their comments and concerns about campus climate;

  • coordinating with school-specific diversity leaders on academic outreach initiatives;

  • representing UCSF in UC systemwide committees, including the UC Office of the President’s Task Force on Faculty Diversity;

  • serving on local and national committees, including the San Mateo Commissions on the Status of Women and Disabilities and chairing the Group on Women in Medicine and Science steering committee of the Association of American Medical Colleges through 2011; and

  • leading efforts to communicate UCSF’s commitment to diversity through annual campus forums and the diversity website.

“I really feel that the campus has done so much and UCSF has so many incredible individuals who are committed to the full breadth of diversity,” Navarro said. “This is an exciting opportunity to be the first vice chancellor working on these issues and to make sure that work is coordinated at the highest level of the organization, cutting across all operational lines, to fully integrate UCSF efforts in diversity. It’s who we are and diversity is what makes us excellent.”

Navarro will play a key role in addressing recommendations contained in a report from a subcommittee she co-chaired.  These recommendations included the establishment of a central diversity office to oversee, incorporate and consolidate some existing UCSF programs and offices to further enhance UCSF’s diversity efforts and strengthen their alignment with UCSF’s mission and priorities. Navarro is especially sensitive to gender equity issues since the Center for Gender Equity at UCSF will close its doors this year as part of that effort.

“Diversity is about inclusion and equity and it’s about recognizing the strengths that we all bring to campus,” Navarro said. “Women still struggle to reach levels of parity within our organization. We still have barriers, including unconscious bias, and gender equity will certainly be a top area of focus. More than 50 percent of our students are women and women should have the opportunities to achieve the highest levels of success within the University.”

Navarro also will seek input on another subcommittee recommendation, which is that UCSF establish a campuswide multicultural center to provide space and resources to support collaboration for outreach, recruitment and retention as well as diversity education and training programs. The subcommittee’s report [PDF] is posted online.

Navarro’s personal life reflects diversity as well. Her husband, Ricardo, who is Hispanic and White, is a practicing anesthesiologist whom she met 23 years ago as a resident at UCSF. They are the parents to three daughters, Veronica, Christina and Jessica and one son, Ricky Jr.  One of their daughters has a disability.

Navarro realizes her trailblazing role as one of only a handful of vice chancellors of diversity in the United States. She plans to meet with and learn from her counterparts throughout the country.

“Yes there is definitely some trailblazing and that is part of the challenge that I’m most excited about,” she said.

Photo by Elisabeth Fall/fallfoto.com

Related Links:

UCSF Diversity website