Editor’s Note: Dr. Paula A. Johnson is the 14th president of Wellesley College. She was previously the Grayce A. Young Family Professor of Medicine in Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
Last month, Covid-19 claimed the life of a 30-year-old Brooklyn schoolteacher named Rana Zoe Mungin. After weeks on life support, she died on April 27.
Her story has sparked widespread outrage in the media and beyond. It is one of systemic failures and missed opportunities, and all the more shocking because of her youth and promise. Mungin’s sister told reporters that over the course of six days in March, Mungin went to Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center three times with worsening symptoms. On the first two trips, she was refused testing despite having standard Covid-19 symptoms, including fever and shortness of breath. Her sister told CNN she believes this was due to the limited resources at the hospital and the fact that Mungin’s oxygen saturation was still good. During her first hospital visit, Mungin was treated for asthma and given medicine for her headache before she went home. When she called an ambulance a few days later and was taken back to the hospital, one attendant speculated she was having a panic attack, her sister said.
CNN has reached out to Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center for comment. By all indications, black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, in yet another example of our nation’s deep-rooted inequities. What’s more, our health system too often gives short shrift to women and people of color. Mungin was both. Although testing for the coronavirus might not have changed her treatment, as the standard practice was to triage patients based on their symptoms, we must still wonder whether she would have been met with less skepticism about the severity of her condition if she’d been a white man. That we will never know.
But these are not the only reasons this death has hit me hard. Mungin was a 2011 alumna of Wellesley College, where I’ve been honored to serve as president for the past four years. I never met her, as she graduated before I arrived, but the more I learn about her story, the more gut-wrenching I find it.
A first-generation college student, Mungin attended Wellesley on financial aid, becoming a fierce advocate for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. A gifted writer – she received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts after graduating from Wellesley – she once wrote: “It’s not anyone’s fault that they’re rich, but it’s always a problem when you’re poor.”
At the time of her death, Mungin was teaching social studies at Bushwick Ascend Middle School, a Brooklyn charter school where her classrooms were filled with middle school students much like her younger self. “To think of the books she would have written, and the students she would have mentored: it’s truly devastating,” mourned one Wellesley faculty member.
These words point us forward. Mungin’s death underscores the need for higher education to recommit to two essential tasks. First, we must be ever-vigilant in our commitment to diversity and unflagging in our efforts to educate students from all walks of life. Second, we must do all we can to equip those students for effective civic engagement, to create the structural changes needed in our nation and the world.
Because of the unprecedented challenges to higher education – particularly now – we risk losing sight of these commitments. But this would be a grave mistake, an abnegation of our crucial mission to serve the public good. As we move through history’s strangest graduation season and look toward an uncertain fall, we must keep these values front and center.
There is a reason that college admissions offices prize diversity, going to great lengths to recruit promising students such as Mungin. Diversity is not a PC afterthought or trendy window dressing. Rather, it is a core value, critical to our mission to equip young people with the tools they need to change the world. It signals a recognition that who we are shapes the questions we ask and the weight we accord the answers. We will never solve the world’s most urgent problems without diverse voices and perspectives.
It’s often said that the function of higher education is to generate and expand knowledge. This tends to happen most powerfully when those with a stake in revealing important truths step up to uncover them.
I know this firsthand. For 15 years, at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I led the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, which I founded in 2001. Both my career in medicine and women’s health and my commitment to public health as a civil rights issue can be directly traced back to my experience as a black woman from Brooklyn.
Until the 1990s, women were routinely excluded from medical research trials, often with deadly consequences. It’s no coincidence that this only changed after an influx of women into the Senate in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. In 1993, Congress passed a historic measure mandating the inclusion of women and minorities in phase 3 clinical trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health.
In the words of former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, an advocate for legislation to support women’s health research: “I’ve had a theory that you fund what you fear. When you have a male-dominated group of researchers, they are more worried about prostate cancer than breast cancer.”
The pandemic comes as a reminder of what we stand to lose when diverse voices go unheeded. Women – and women of color in particular – are on the front lines of this crisis in disproportionate numbers. Nearly 60% of the 700,000 jobs eliminated in March were held by women, according to data from the US Labor Department. No one will care more about this burden and its costs than those directly affected. It’s essential to have them at the tables where key questions are asked and significant decisions are made. This is especially true for today’s youth, who will spend their lifetimes cleaning up after the mess many of our leaders made in the decades leading up to this pandemic.
This is unfair, and that is why, the least we can do is arm them with the tools they will need to be successful change-makers. I am not the first to note that this pandemic marks a potential turning point – it is both a tragedy and opportunity like no other we have experienced in the past century. Will we seek to return to the old normal that failed Mungin and so many others? Or will we aspire to do better? To choose justice, unity, and hope over greed, division, and despair? The stakes could not be higher.
Just as we’ve moved our courses online, colleges and universities must adapt to the times by finding new ways to foster civic engagement and public service. Now more than ever, we must build out these commitments. This will call on our ingenuity as well as our dedication. It will call on us to do all we can to meet students’ financial needs, despite the fact that both educational institutions – and the nation as a whole – will face unprecedented budgetary challenges. Our responsibilities are not confined to academic instruction for those with the ability to pay. We are called to educate a new generation of citizen leaders and bring forward voices long ignored or excluded.
Mungin’s death is a stark reminder of all that is at risk – and my hope is that it will further spur efforts to equip students from all walks of life to build a more just world. While her voice is silenced, it’s crystal clear what she would ask us to do now. May her life inspire us to do our part to change the systems that failed her.