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Updated: October 16, 2023

Outstanding Women in Business: Duncan enters messy situations fearlessly

photo | christine peterson Marlina Duncan, vice chancellor, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at UMass Chan Medical School

It was a somewhat windy road that brought Marlina Duncan to a career as a chief diversity officer.

She first thought she wanted to be a medical doctor, pursuing a degree in biology from Westfield State, but realized it wasn’t for her. Instead, she found a passion for science education and broadening participation among underrepresented groups.

“I didn’t see a lot of teachers that looked like me,” Duncan said.

A bio box on Marlina Duncan

Additionally, she noticed a lack of students from marginalized backgrounds pursuing science. These experiences led her to pursue a doctorate in science education, and she launched her career, which has brought her to the top of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at UMass Chan Medical School.

Elevating the profile of DEI initiatives in medicine, in particular, is important.

“So many studies show that patients have better outcomes when caregivers share a background,” Duncan said. “If we want more innovation and insight, it makes sense to have people with different experiences and perspectives at the table.”

Before she came to UMass Chan in 2020, Duncan was an associate dean at Brown University in Providence and director of diversity initiatives and education and outreach at the Broad Institute in Cambridge.

She has excelled as a change agent with a steady calmness and commitment, said Bruce Birren, director of the Genomic Center for Infectious Diseases at the Broad Institute.

“She enters some messy situations fearlessly,” said Birren.

Without casting blame about institutional challenges related to DEI, Duncan invited scientists across the Broad to think seriously about the consequences stemming from a lack of inclusivity in a supportive manner. She empowered people to change.

Duncan uses her experiences, her education, and her demeanor to get people excited about putting in the work to achieve institutional change, said Birren.

“She brought this wealth of knowledge and raised everything we did by several notches by asking amazing questions that got us to think about why we did things one way and how it could go better,” he said.

Exploring how to make situations better for people of all backgrounds is what Duncan continues to do in her career.

Now at UMass Chan, Duncan is working to solidify DEI as an institutional priority. She’s made some significant headway in her three years there.

In February 2022, UMass Chan made diversity, equity, and inclusion a pillar in its strategic plan, recognizing the need to prioritize resources in the pursuit of equality.

“It’s an integral part of the institution now,” said Duncan. “We realized we needed to operationalize this work and make it a priority.”

Under Duncan’s tenure, the number of staff positions in the DEI office has been increased, and the university has added more affinity groups for staff members and students. While progress has been made steadily, there’s a need to recognize change is an ongoing process and the work is not done.

That work is hard, she said.

“The biggest challenge is change. Change is hard for everyone. This work is asking people to reimagine what has been done for such a long time,” Duncan said.

This education and exposure takes time, she said. While it's tempting to be in a rush to make changes once the recognition of problems is there, it needs to be balanced with allowing time to learn and to feel, said Duncan.

To move forward, Duncan takes her role of guiding this progress seriously.

“We are creating opportunities for folks to engage in difficult conversations and listen to what's holding them back,” she said. “Being there, being flexible, being open makes the difference.”

Duncan helps people reimagine situations differently, think about how some face the world in ways that are different than what they have experienced themselves, and address how to move forward, said Birren.

“That's an amazing talent,” he said.

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