Alicia Monroe, M.D.
The provost and senior vice president of academic and faculty affairs at Baylor College of Medicine sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to reflect on how a strong support system helped shape her career, and what role she hopes to have in building Baylor’s future leaders.
Q | Can you tell us about your formative years?
A | I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. I am a middle child—I have two sisters and a brother. My mom and dad were not college graduates. My mother was a beautician and my dad was a postal worker. As a young girl, the two careers that were most fascinating to me were teaching and medicine. Along my journey, I had great role models and mentors who introduced me to those fields.
My pediatrician, who happened to be an African-American female, encouraged my interest in medicine and offered advice. As early as middle school, I thought I would go to medical school and become a pediatrician, but my love for teaching and learning was always there. My other early mentor was my maternal aunt who has a passion for literature and poetry, and who pursued a career in elementary education. I was able to observe my aunt in the classroom and the enthusiastic response of her students. At one point, I recall having a conversation with my aunt about my interests, and I told her I was interested in both medicine and teaching. Her response was, ‘If you have an opportunity to go to medical school and become a physician, by all means you should pursue a career in medicine.’ So that wasn’t the reason I chose medicine, but I certainly had those two passions, both for teaching and for health care.
I grew up in a family where there has been a lot of premature death—from cardiovascular disease and cancer. My paternal grandfather died at age 44, and none of my father’s brothers lived beyond age 56. My paternal grandfather expired following a hemorrhagic stroke, and my father’s brothers all had hypertension and died following massive myocardial infarcts. My dad lived to age 57, but he died of lung cancer. My mother died at age 44 from Hodgkin’s disease. She experienced a delay in receiving an accurate diagnosis and had many disappointing and hurtful interactions with her physicians. She didn’t feel that she was listened to or that the physicians took her complaints seriously. Although she was ultimately diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, she was initially told that her symptoms were psychosomatic. I would say she was disillusioned with regard to her interactions with physicians. Those less-than-satisfactory relationships with physicians, the prevalence of chronic illnesses in my family and my community, and a strong desire to improve access to care and the quality of physician/patient interactions were the primary reasons I chose medicine. However, the physician/patient relationship and cross-cultural communication have been areas of scholarly interest throughout my career.
Q | What led you to Brown University?
A | While I was preparing for college, I had a conversation with my pediatrician to gather her recommendations regarding schools to consider. She encouraged me to consider women’s colleges. In particular the seven sister colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley. When I looked at those schools, Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, was most attractive to me. I applied to Smith and some other smaller liberal arts schools. I also applied to Purdue University. About December of my senior year, I received an application from Pembroke College, which was the women’s college at Brown University. Pembroke students enjoyed many of the benefits of being at a women’s college, as well as access to the new curriculum that was being implemented at Brown University, and that was very attractive to me. I applied and was admitted to Pembroke College at Brown University and the rest is history!
Q | What was your experience at Brown like?
A | Brown is an outstanding institution, but at that point in history, there were a number of ironic paradoxes, if you will. It had a really interesting cultural and academic environment that was simultaneously rigorous and permissive. The biomedical sciences were demanding, but the paucity of requirements offered me freedom to explore a variety of disciplines including dance, art and film studies. It was a great place to learn.
The first time I was ever in Rhode Island was when I arrived for orientation. I can remember feeling a little bit like what ‘Alice in Wonderland’ must have felt. The campus is marked by historic architecture, rolling hills, beautiful flowers and green spaces. Brown is right in the middle of a residential neighborhood, but at the same time it still has a distinctive university feel. At least that’s what I have likened to a ‘university feel.’ I can remember meeting an impressive group of very accomplished young women from all over the country. We had a particularly outstanding group of sophomore African-American women who were smart, determined and principled. They had participated in the ‘1968 Walkout,’ which was a decisive moment in the history of Brown University.
On Dec. 5, 1968, 65 black students from Brown and Pembroke Colleges left campus and boycotted classes to protest what they saw as a lack of commitment to minority students. The protesters requested an increase in minority student enrollment. I was a beneficiary of their courage and I matriculated in the most diverse class Brown had ever admitted in the fall of 1969. You know where the country was at that time in history—we were in the midst of the Vietnam War and we were reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It was a very tumultuous time. It was a very interesting time to come of age and to be at an institution that had a deep historical relationship to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2003, Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons formed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to investigate and publish a report on the University’s historical relationship to slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
I went to a public high school in Indiana. The way in which Indianapolis chose to desegregate its schools was, frankly, to give students the opportunity to attend any school they wanted to within the metropolitan area. So I chose to go to Broad Ripple High School in a relatively affluent neighborhood.
I think I had a good high school education, but in the fields of math and science, I was woefully underprepared for Brown. I was very fortunate to get through those early years. Certainly freshman and sophomore years were the toughest. Once I could find study groups and a supportive professor or two, I was able to ‘thread the needle,’ graduate and go on to medical school.
During my sophomore year at Brown, my mom’s cancer progressed and she passed away. Ironically, organic chemistry was a welcome distraction from the heavy burden of grief I carried for my mom. It was a season during which I became very focused and clear about my goals and persevering toward those goals. My mother put very strong foundational roots in all of her four children. She planted seeds of love, faith, hope, strength, perseverance and optimism that have encouraged and sustained me over time. After she passed away, my maternal grandmother took up the mantle of teacher and encourager for my siblings and me. I lived with her during medical school to save money, and it was a very special time for me to get to know her as an adult. I am very privileged to have grown up in a family with extraordinary people, especially women.
Q | You have won numerous awards in teaching. What is it about teaching that excites you the most?
A | My passion for teaching is rooted in my sincere regard for students and trainees, and my desire to support their aspirations as outstanding professionals, educators and leaders. There is a natural synergy between excitement about sharing new ideas and concepts, and excitement about helping young people to excel. I teach with passion and enthusiasm and I adopt the principle of being learner-centered. My goal is to bring flexibility to each session so that I can customize the teaching to the needs of the learners, while meeting the course objectives. My goal is not only that they would grasp the content, but more importantly, that they would be excited about learning the content. Not just to pass a test, but to help them be more effective in the current or next phase of their educational work or leadership roles. My teaching is a blend of content, inspiration and encouragement.
Q | What was it that attracted you to Baylor College of Medicine?
A | I was very content in Florida at the Morsani College of Medicine. We had started a new leadership track that was flourishing, and we had attracted some great students and faculty. I was mentoring outstanding faculty members, and I think the program was really evolving. What initially caught my eye in regard to this position at Baylor was, frankly, Baylor’s reputation as an outstanding institution. I was aware of Baylor’s academic and research excellence and its long and distinguished history with regard to diversity programs. So the institution’s history attracted me, but the fact that the provost role was a new position peaked my curiosity.
I have had the great privilege of previously serving in two new positions, and I found each of them to be exciting and rewarding. I had the opportunity to apply my skills, experience and creativity in shaping a new organizational role that met the needs of the institution. New positions signal that an organization is undergoing culture change and to play a role in the evolution of an institution is a gift. I can discover what the institution wants and needs, and how can I be a positive contributor. I became more excited about the position as the recruitment process progressed. The outstanding programs, excellent faculty, staff and students were very attractive. We have lots of silos of excellence, lots of outstanding individuals and great schools, and we have the chance to align and leverage our internal strengths through new partnerships and collaborations. The opportunity to come here and facilitate that work was really very exciting for me.
Q | What are some of the things that you hope to see evolve during your tenure here at Baylor?
A | Well, certainly to reengineer our faculty mentoring program, to establish leadership circles for both students and for faculty and to implement an intergenerational leadership model. This leadership model would connect emerging leaders with existing leaders to create a safe space for bidirectional learning and leadership development. I would like to see Baylor actively cultivate the next generation of leaders who are prepared to take on leadership roles at Baylor or other institutions. I would like to enhance centralized infrastructure to optimize excellence across the education mission (academic programs, student learning, professional development and career advancement). I also envision that we will add new academic programs that will respond to workforce demands, as well as right-size some our existing programs that need to expand.
Q | How have you been enjoying Houston?
A | After a year and a half, I would say I’m settling in. I think Houston has a lot to offer. It is a great place. There is a lot to see and do, and I have barely begun to scratch the surface. There are a lot of culture festivals and events, a lot to do for families and singles, and it is a vibrant community. I look forward to having a bit more time in the near future to enjoy the environment, but I am getting there.