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Women we admire: Renee Navarro, UCSF Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Outreach

Listen to these tips from UCSF’s Renee Navarro:

  • When you’re in the middle of something difficult, step back and remember why you’re here; then everything will fall into place.
  • Never underestimate the power of one: Each of us has the ability to reach out to someone in our workplace.
  • Think broadly about the possibilities: We have infinite possibilities but often limit ourselves.

Navarro, Pharm.D., M.D., said she hoped to leave a few “pearls of wisdom” with her UCOP audience. She then proceeded to share her views on human potential, career balance and just plain positive thinking, views that are helping create a culture of inclusion and opportunity at one of the world’s top academic medical centers.

The March 19 talk was part of the Women We Admire series sponsored by PACSW, the President’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. (Check out the ReadyTalk audio on the Women We Admire website.)

Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Outreach since 2010, Navarro has spent 30 years at UCSF, starting as a medical student and then resident in anesthesia. On the faculty for 21 years, she has served as a researcher, perioperative director, chief of staff and associate dean of academic affairs. In her current role, she is the campus’s resident expert on diversity and best practices for recruiting and retaining faculty, students, trainees and staff.

“I never imagined I would be the first African American woman to serve in a vice chancellor position at UCSF,” she said. Born in Mobile, Ala., she was one of six children of a sharecropper’s daughter. When her parents moved the family to California, her mom got her master’s degree and teaching credential and proved a tough act to follow.

She wanted her daughter to be a doctor, even though the young Renee found the idea daunting. So, in 1982, she started at University of the Pacific’s Pharm. D. program, gaining enough confidence to attend medical school. She was able to help pay her way through by working in a pharmacy. Then, “impostor syndrome” hit hard.

“I was at UCSF at a time when women were struggling,” Navarro said. “I felt isolated and challenged and didn’t know where to get help and reassurance. There were few role models for me.”

She did find two African-American faculty mentors — ophthalmologist Michael Drake (now chancellor of UC Irvine) and researcher Eugene Washington (now dean of UCLA School of Medicine)  — who made it their mission to reach out to students of color. “It took me a long time to realize that people really mean it when they say, ‘Call me.’ I finally got the confidence to reach out early and often.”

In a high-achieving culture like UCSF, Navarro got caught up in a grueling schedule doing both research and clinical work. She switched to a clinical focus; then, after stepping up to fix a few “broken systems” that she felt did not support staff or patient care, she was appointed chief of staff.

As a mother of three children, one with cerebral palsy, career demands began to take a toll. “Don’t let other people define your success for you,” she said. “Find out what your own passion is.”

Navarro credits Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellman with creating a vice chancellorship to oversee UCSF’s full-fledged push for diversity, which includes efforts to address unconscious bias in recruiting and admissions and programs like PRIME, the Program in Medical Education, to attract underrepresented minorities to the medical school.

She sits down with search committees to discuss the impact of unconscious bias and encourages them to take the Implicit Association Test, which exposes people’s unconscious biases. She also supports the systemwide climate survey, coming this fall, to survey staff, students and faculty about life at each UC location.

“If we want to maintain excellence, we need to support a multicultural environment based not just on race, gender and ethnicity, but based on culture and inclusion,” she said. “We need to understand that people have different life experiences, and those differences add value.”

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