Words matter: Tracing the implicit meaning of diversity language (and its absence) in medical school mission statements

Jennifer Dens Higano, Jon C. Tilburt, Frederic W. Hafferty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite recent attention to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion within medical education, little is currently known about whether and to what extent that attention has translated into the language of formal documents articulating organization purpose: medical school mission statements. Mission statements are the marquee declaration of a medical school's identity and purpose, and a recommended tool for applicants to determine “fit” when applying. This study examines whether and to what extent social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion have made it into the formal public statements of organizational purpose and identity over the last several years. Mission statements were extracted manually from the 2007, 2017, and 2021 AAMCs Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) database for both U.S. and Canadian M.D. granting medical schools. Then each mission statement version was coded for the presence and degree of diversity language including words like social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion using an agreed-upon lexicon. Frequencies and within school changes over time were analyzed. Among 139 medical schools with discoverable mission statements from 2007, 91% (n=127) changed their MSs between 2007 and 2021. In 2007, 24% (n=33) of MSs contained diversity language. By 2017 nearly half of MSs; 47% (n=65) contained any reference to such language. But by 2021, despite 46 school having changed their MSs again, only a few more included diversity language in their MSs (56%; n=77). The most common terms used were “diversity,” followed by the increasing presence of words like “inclusion,” “equity,” and “justice” by 2021. Curiously, a few schools redacted diversity language from 2007 to 2021. A Diversity Thesaurus of 22 terms was iteratively identified, with all terms searched in all MSs. Overall, mission statement change was quite common with most medical schools making changes across the 14 years covered in this study. And despite a doubling of the number of medical schools MSs mentioning diversity over a 10-year period, that increase seemed to slow in recent years even among schools who had a chance to change their MS. As of mid-2021, two in five US medical schools still have no mention of diversity related language in their most formal, said articulation of organizational purpose.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)18-25
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the National Medical Association
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2023


  • Diversity
  • Equity
  • Medical education
  • Mission statements
  • Social justice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Words matter: Tracing the implicit meaning of diversity language (and its absence) in medical school mission statements'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this