In the Mix at Annual Session: Something for Everyone

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic reviews the abundance of diverse programming—and programming related to diversity and inclusion—at the 2017 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in Long Beach, CA.

Last month saw another ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition come and go, and while I’m always impressed by what each ADEA Annual Session Program Committee (ADEA ASPC) can pull off, this year’s meeting was exceptional. The waterside venue in Long Beach, the California sun, and—most importantly—the programming, were all superb, and the presence of a record-breaking number of members made the atmosphere electric.

Blasting Off!

Many attendees joined us for the first time, and with over 400 separate events to choose from, I’m sure the process of getting oriented was daunting for some of our new participants! Fortunately, ADEA member Nisha Ganesh from East Carolina University organized an event to help first-time attendees navigate the meeting. Saturday’s first-ever Find Your Tribe session offered 100 newcomers lunch, icebreaker activities and the support of an “Army of Connectors.” These conference veterans, including most members of the ADEA ASPC, answered questions and brought people with similar interests together.

This year’s theme was Beyond Boundaries, and the Opening Plenary with physician/astronaut Mae Jemison set the stage for sessions designed to take us out of our comfort zones and into less familiar territory. She inspired us with her quest to support interstellar travel and her conviction that humankind can progress in striving for such goals. Her jokes about Star Trek (she once made a cameo appearance on the show) also pleased many in the audience who were clearly fans—then-Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors Cecile Feldman among them. Who knew that Cecile once dreamed of going into space?

I should also note two other highlights of this particular plenary. First, there was hardly a dry eye in the house when Cecile bestowed this year’s Distinguished Service Award on ADEA Senior Scholar in Residence Leo Rouse, D.D.S., who has served as a mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, during his career. I was also personally touched by her surprise acknowledgment of my 20 years of service as ADEA CEO. Hard to believe it has been that long. The time has really flown!

Politics as [Un]usual

This year’s Political Spotlight was also a big hit, and provocative from the word go. As luck would have it, the House of Representatives was just starting its hearings on President Trump’s wiretapping allegations as the session began, so the discussion couldn’t have been more timely.

Well-known political commentators Ana Navarro and Hilary Rosen entertained attendees with their pointed comments on the flurry of activity that has been roiling the federal government these past few months. To judge from the informal conversations occurring throughout the convention center and beyond, the uncertainty in Washington is creating a lot of anxiety for all of us. Despite their wide range of political views, our members (and the country as a whole) are used to a certain tempo and restraint in the nation’s political discourse. Both have been absent of late, leaving everyone feeling unsettled.

“The scope of federal decisions that could affect us—everything from Medicaid to GME to HRSA to CDC to accreditation to student loan programs—it goes on and on and on,” Cecile recently remarked. “The only thing that’s predictable right now is that the unpredictable will occur.”

One silver lining amid the turmoil may be a boost in member engagement. ADEA’s Chief Advocacy Officer, Yvonne Knight, told me that in Long Beach, she heard more members express appreciation for ADEA’s advocacy work than ever before. I urge those of you who want to join our work here in Washington to participate in our ADEA Virtual Hill Day on April 26.

Diversity and Inclusion

Like many of our previous plenary speakers, Jemison, Navarro and Rosen had star power. No doubt about it. But arguably, the brightest light at this year’s Annual Session was supplied by Anne Koch, D.M.D.—an endodontist, entrepreneur and faculty colleague of mine from our time together at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine—who spoke about the needs of transgender patients and her own experience transitioning. She addressed a packed audience at a morning seminar that officially ended at noon but unofficially continued until almost 3:00 p.m. while Anne answered questions and talked one-on-one with attendees. A few hours later, she headlined our new Sunday evening plenary, “In the Mix” Series: Inclusion, Excellence and Dental Education—a time for members to actively network with one another while exploring the many faces of diversity and inclusion.

I don’t remember the last time we had a dental educator as a plenary speaker, but having one of our own speak to these particular issues was extremely powerful. If you’ve already met Anne, you know she has an open and engaging personality. She’s also a dynamic presenter. You could hear a pin drop during her remarks, and when the discussion portion of the plenary began, everyone participated. Without a doubt, this new event on diversity and inclusion was a huge hit and highlight of Annual Session for many. Anne’s assessment? She told me, “I felt like I belonged at this meeting for the first time!”

It’s interesting to note that, although unintentional, all of this year’s plenary speakers, including the Google executive who provided pointers on innovation Tuesday morning, were women, and a racially and ethnically diverse group at that. Yet, no one seemed to notice—which says a lot about our community and about ADEA’s success in promoting diversity and inclusion at this meeting and beyond.

Although much of the programming reflected the theme of this year’s meeting, Beyond Boundaries, diversity and inclusion sessions were woven throughout the fabric of the event. Their importance was affirmed again and again—starting with a two-day preconference workshop for participants in the ADEA/W.K. Kellogg Foundation Minority Dental Faculty Development and Inclusion (MDFDI) Program, featuring former Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, M.D., and ending with voting on resolutions at the closing of the ADEA House of Delegates.

Building a diverse oral health team is one of the four themes Dr. Leon Assael, the new Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors, plans to emphasize during his year as Chair. “Diversity is the critical issue that will affect the oral health professions in the coming decade,” he told the delegates. “If our students reflect the communities they serve, if they feel comfortable caring for patients who reflect all facets of the human experience, we will see palpable improvement in American society.”

The diverse range of attendees also made this a year a standout.

  • Our effort to draw more Canadian members to the meeting was a big success, and we were able to move forward with the discussions we began in Montréal related to AADSAS® and ADEA’s survey work.
  • Several of our European colleagues were also in attendance, including the President, President-Elect and Director of the Association of Dental Educators in Europe (ADEE), whom we’ll be seeing again at our joint meeting in London next month.
  • More than 600 students and a few parents and health professions advisors attended this year’s ADEA GoDental Recruitment Event. They met with representatives from 47 dental schools and 11 organizations, including three branches of the U.S. Armed Services, participating for the first time.

Looking Ahead

When the world appears to be chaotic, it’s easy to be discouraged, but to judge from the ADEA members in Long Beach, dental educators are excited about the opportunity to face the future. They believe, as do I, that we have the resources and the talent to take on the challenges before us.

What are those challenges and opportunities? Three Chair of the Board symposia and a fourth session on the future of allied dental education answered this question, each in its own way. A presentation by Kaiser Permanente’s Nirav Shah, M.D., M.P.H., on health care transformation had a lot people talking, as did two presentations on the future of dental education in the 21st century. Some of the views expressed were highly controversial, but the opportunity to engage in stimulating debate was well received.

A series of short TED Talks-style presentations on educational innovation and the unveiling of a newly reconstituted ADEA Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education (ADEA CCI) 2.0 also contributed to the mix of programming. I heard a lot of praise for these sessions, which challenged ADEA members to rethink their assumptions and join the ongoing effort to shape the future of dental education. Especially in the area of licensure, a topic I’ll be covering later this year, attendees welcomed the opportunity for dialogue.

All in all, the depth and scope of this year’s programming was exceptional, reflecting the elevated level of engagement within ADEA sections and councils, the membership’s willingness to freely share ideas and resources, and the generosity of our Corporate Members. As ADEA’s Chief Policy Officer, Denice Stewart, D.D.S., M.H.S.A., remarked when we spoke last week, those who say that face-to-face meetings will go away in the era of global communications are missing something fundamental. The opportunity to meet and mix with colleagues from all over the world adds what she called “an extra layer of richness,” and reinforces the sense that we are all pursuing a common goal.

That sense is all the more palpable when the opportunities for interaction are diverse and the attendees bring an array of backgrounds and experiences. I have no doubt these qualities will be on display when we meet next March in Orlando. Please consider submitting a program, poster or TechExpo presentation for the 2018 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition, Vision 2030, and help us continue to shape the future of dental education.

A select group of presentations were taped and will soon be available to members for viewing. Watch for announcements and check the ADEA website for more information.

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