The University of Southern California Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy trumpets its dedication to diversity on its website. The school is “committed to preparing diverse leaders” and pledges “accountability and transparency, as well as consistent engagement to ensure that we create and maintain an inclusive environment.” It’s an important goal in a profession that serves people of all backgrounds but whose practitioners are over 80% white.
As director of admissions at USC Chan, Dr. Arameh Anvarizadeh said that she was doing just that. The first Black woman in the position, she revamped the admissions process to make it more holistic, decreasing the emphasis on GPAs and GREs and adding opportunities for applicants to show their compassion, commitment to health equity, and how their life experiences had shaped them.
The result was what Anvarizadeh described as the most diverse cohorts in USC Chan’s history, featuring a 10% increase in admitted Black students and a 19% increase in Latinx ones. (USC could not provide data on the cohorts' diversity before press time.) Students from minoritized backgrounds named her as the primary reason that they had pursued the field.
“She changed my life and opened doors for me that I don’t think would have ever been opened,” said Christine Villalobos, a doctoral candidate in the class of 2023. “There’s no way I would’ve been able to have entered occupational therapy despite my years in caregiving.”
So, it came as a shock when Anvarizadeh was demoted to the role of associate professor last June while on a protected medical leave following her pregnancy.
“There was really no rationale,” said Anvarizadeh, who is also the co-founder and chair of the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity and the youngest and first Black and Iranian woman vice president of the American Occupational Therapy Association. “My performance was high; my merit review was stellar. There’s nothing you can pinpoint that’s tangible.”
Anvarizadeh and the USC Chan Justice Collective, a coalition of roughly 100 students that has sprung up to support her, suspect something pernicious behind her demotion: racism, and a reluctance to truly do the work necessary to back up the school’s claims about diversity, access, and equity.
“When you look at the work that I created, one would question if it was too much diversity that was added into the program,” said Anvarizadeh. “Maybe that just makes people uncomfortable.”
Teresa Pham, a doctoral candidate in the class of 2023, was more direct.
“I really think that she’s so powerful that they felt threatened,” she said. “Dr. A. was pushing their boundaries, and they saw an opportunity to remove her from her position, and they ran with it.”
USC declined to make administrators available for interviews with Diverse.
“The university must respect its employees’ privacy rights and therefore cannot discuss individual personnel matters,” the university said in a statement.
Anvarizadeh said that she went beyond the admissions office in trying to ensure that USC Chan was a culturally sensitive space.
“After admitting [diverse students], you have to be able to make sure that they’re in a safe environment,” Anvarizadeh said. “So you have to be able to look at pedagogy, you have to be able to look at curriculum. What are we teaching? How are we teaching it? Who’s teaching it?”
According to Anvarizadeh, she experienced “constant pushback” in her work.
“When you’re opening up the doors to add more minoritized individuals, then people have to really look at themselves and question if they’re ready to share spaces with these individuals,” she said. “Did they really underestimate the change that would happen?”
The students who represent that change have come together in Anvarizadeh’s defense. The USC Chan Justice Collective is calling for Anvarizadeh’s reinstatement, a public apology, and the resignation of two administrators who they say were involved in her demotion. In a statement, USC Chan said that they had engaged with the group.
“We have met with faculty, staff, and students to hear their concerns, and will continue discussing with them how the school can build on its efforts to advance equity, inclusion, and diversity,” the school said.
But students have been unsatisfied with the university’s response. The Justice Collective wrote on Instagram that they had encountered “denial, diversion, and silencing of our voices.”
The collective accuses the USC Chan administration of handicapping a student forum that they had agreed to host about the demotion by refusing to promote it, scheduling it for too small a room, and not enabling virtual attendance. Moreover, the collective says, the administration did not truly listen to students’ concerns, instead promoting the school’s various diversity initiatives. Additionally, at meetings with concerned faculty and staff, a white restorative process facilitator who had been hired by USC decorated the room with a rainbow mandala rug and crystals. The Justice Collective described it as “cultural appropriation and white co-optation 101” and “the aesthetics without the substance” on Instagram.
Villalobos, who called the rug and crystals “ridiculous and insulting,” doesn’t believe that USC Chan has been sincere in its engagement with protesters.
“It almost feels like the administration is just waiting for students to graduate so that they won’t have to deal with this anymore,” she said.
Anvarizadeh is teaching three classes this term, including an elective on anti-racism and anti-oppression in occupational therapy. She is not sure whether she will continue to work at USC Chan after the term ends. She is currently involved in an internal process with the school over her demotion and would not say whether she planned any legal action. The Justice Collective has continued to support Anvarizadeh, this week submitting a petition that they said had 925 signatures to administrators.
However, Anvarizadeh’s absence from admissions has already been felt. In an article published in the USC Annenberg Media, a student said that since Anvarizadeh went on maternity leave, the school has become visibly less diverse. According to Anvarizadeh, the newest cohort has zero Black males. However, USC defended its diversity, saying in a statement that its enrollment data "indicates that the division is maintaining the diversity strides made in prior years."
But Anvarizadeh questions whether USC Chan’s commitment to diversity was ever really sincere.
“You really wonder if it’s performative,” she said. “Are you truly wanting to make these changes? Because if you are, then [there’s] no reason I shouldn’t be in the position because I was just doing what they said they were going to do.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.