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Always Learning: Sharon Diaz Focuses on Healthcare Disparities

As the president of a university focused on the health sciences, Dr. Sharon Diaz of Samuel Merritt University (SMU) is cognizant of disparities in healthcare and endeavors to develop professionals that embrace diversity and positive change.

“You have the opportunity to learn so many things,” says Diaz of being a university president. “Everything from how to read a financial statement to how to work with a governing board and learning from the people you work with.”

Dr. Sharon DiazDr. Sharon Diaz

Originally founded in 1909 by physician Dr. Samuel Merritt, who had migrated west to be part of the development of California, when Diaz joined the school in 1973 the Samuel Merritt Hospital School of Nursing offered only a diploma program in nursing. There was a desire to change to a degree program.

Fascinated by the prospect of developing this new educational opportunity that would sustain the school’s reputation for clinical excellence while also advancing the nursing profession, Diaz took on the challenge. In 1976, she became director of the School of Nursing. Over the next eight years, she worked to transition the school to a degree-granting institution. In 1984, the first baccalaureate degrees were conferred, the institution became accredited and she became president.

“I was working with a higher education consultant and he convinced the board of both the hospital and the new college that they should name me president,” says Diaz. “I didn’t have any aspirations to become a college president. It has been a lifetime of learning, which is why I stuck around so long. I keep learning new things.”

Under Diaz’s leadership, SMU has grown into a dynamic university offering degrees in nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistant and podiatric medicine. There are also online programs in advanced practice nursing. Each step of institutional expansion was carefully thought out, and Diaz says she reviewed a lot of detailed business plans.

“I have had the fortune to work with incredibly capable people,” says Diaz. “You make sure there’s a market for the people you’re going to graduate. You make sure there’s a market for the program you’re going to admit them to. You make sure they’re going to make enough money when they graduate to pay off their loans.”

Approximately 90 percent of the students have some form of financial aid. In educating people who will help shape the healthcare landscape in California and beyond, diversity is essential.

“We’re trying to create an environment that is safe and welcoming for students, faculty and staff,” says Diaz. “We have serious problems in healthcare inequities and disparities and in order to address that we need to provide an environment to educate students who are diverse. If we can create that environment and within the university provide the right kind of education to better educate diverse students, who then in turn provide better care to our broader community, we will then provide effective healthcare practitioners and ultimately influence the care in our broader communities.”

Whenever possible, Diaz takes the time to meet with potential students. Over the past five to seven years, many have told her they want to attend SMU because of the institutional commitment to community.

Over the decades Diaz has seen each of the healthcare professions evolve. What is possible changes constantly, so the university is tasked with teaching people how to think because what they’ll do in five years will be quite different from what they’re doing today.

“You have to teach people how to use their clinical reasoning and science far more than esoteric facts that might be proven wrong tomorrow,” Diaz says.

She is excited by technologic innovations. Every program uses simulation. This gives students a broad range of experience in many scenarios, beyond what clinical units offer.

While Diaz hasn’t been directly engaged in nursing work for many years, she feels that background informs her work on a daily basis. There is a skill set involving communication and behavior that is most beneficial.

“Every single one of us who cares for other people in one way or another, you have the opportunity at the end of a workday to reflect and consider that you have indeed made a difference,” she says.

In her own career, Diaz became a nursing educator to “fix nursing.” She came to realize that teaching wasn’t necessarily a remedy to problematic issues, but she did thrive on seeing nursing students awaken to the power of the profession.

“The education setting is unique,” Diaz says. “It ought to be even more so where you’re creating this safe environment to learn and to experience that joy of caring.”

As the university grew, developed and introduced new programs, Diaz adhered to the idea that to have a mission you have to have a margin. Every development costs money and tuition increases must be contained.

“We’re fiercely committed to being in Oakland; it’s our home and our roots,” says Diaz. “It’s the city that exemplifies best who we are. We’ve grown online. You can’t stand still. Fortunately, we have a team of people who understand and move forward.

“You have to figure out as best you can where healthcare is going,” she adds. “You can’t be too far ahead or you won’t have applicants, but you’ve got to be far enough ahead of the competition.”

Building allies in the quest for diversity and inclusion has been crucial. The university takes a vested interest in the local community. There is a health ministries program that is run through the Ethnic Health Institute. For approximately eight years, there has been a close working relationship with a Black church. There are events around diverse ethnic groups, including a recent first-ever Ramadan dinner with a nearby mosque.

Student recruitment with diverse populations is intentional. On-campus events for faculty, staff and students help create and sustain positive bonds. There have been three fully funded HRSA grants, and the university recently received a Nursing Workforce Diversity grant.

Diaz isn’t done just yet. The search is on for a new president, and the goal is to have someone in place by January 2019. After that, she hopes to still play a role in higher education by coaching new college and university presidents. She also hopes to work with troubled institutions, such as small liberal arts colleges. Her understanding of how to navigate the bottom line while also advancing an institution could be most beneficial.

As president, Diaz has called upon her political acumen and she will continue to do so. She is willing to share her strategies.

“People know exactly what my agenda is. I make no secret of it,” Diaz says. “I don’t think you can have quality healthcare until you eradicate the disparities.

“When I talk about being political it has to do with the fact that if I want to get something done, I’m going to try and figure out who the decision-maker is and what that decision-maker values, so I can figure out how to pitch my idea,” she adds. “You can’t be in my position as many years as I have by just pushing my values.”

This article appeared in the June 28 issue of Diverse magazine. It is one in a series of articles about retiring college presidents that will run over the next week.

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