Organized collective of students, faculty criticize the demotion of USC Chan director of admissions

Occupational therapy students and faculty are rallying over the former director, who they believe contributed significantly to diversifying the division.

A group of students inside a classroom with signs.

USC faculty and students are seeking to hold accountable the USC Chan Division of Occupational Therapy following the demotion of Arameh Anvarizadeh from her position as the director of admissions while she was on protected medical leave following maternity leave, as announced on June 30, 2022.

The USC Chan Justice Collective, consisting of both students and staff in the School of Occupational Therapy, are criticizing higher-level faculty accountable for demoting Anvarizadeh. According to the group, the former director of admissions has significantly contributed to diversifying the program and the field itself.

At USC, Anvarizadeh (or Dr. A, as she is called by students in the division) was dedicated to diversifying the program and creating a more equitable space, members of the collective say. With her no longer directing, students feel her efforts in diversity are also gone.

In the seven months since the announcement, USC occupational therapy students and faculty have organized and rallied to reinstate Anvarizadeh as director of admissions.

On February 1, the collective launched its Instagram account with the intention of creating a space for people to express their frustrations at Anvarizadeh’s demotion and calling faculty to action. The account had over 700 followers, as of the publication of this article.

“Justice for Dr. Anvarizadeh,” the collective wrote in their first post. “After bringing in the most diverse class of students in USC Chan history, Dr. Arameh Anvarizadeh was unilaterally removed (by Associate Dean and Chair Grace Baranek & Associate Chair for Curriculum and Faculty Julie McLaughlin Gray) from her role as [d]irector of [a]dmissions, while on protected medical leave after maternity leave. This decision has brought concerns about systemic racism, gender oppression, and ableism to the forefront at USC Chan, the ‘#1′ Occupational Therapy school in the U.S.”

The post had over 3,000 likes as of the publication of this story.

Anvarizadeh is not part of the collective and she chose not to comment when asked by Annenberg Media.

The collective listed four demands in a post on their Instagram, in what they believe is the pursuit of “genuine accountability and justice” for Anvarizadeh. They demand the resignation of associate dean and chair Grace Baranek & associate chair for curriculum and faculty Julie McLaughlin Gray, which the collective says were the ones who made the decision to remove Anvarizadeh as director. The collective also asks for a public apology from Baranek and McLaughlin and for the reinstatement of Anvarizadeh as director of admissions, if she wants the position back. In the case that she doesn’t they ask that she should oversee the process of appointing a new director.

The collective argues that her role in diversity can be best described by her actions.

Outside of her role at USC, Anvarizadeh is the co-founder and chair of the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD), a non-profit that teaches leaders in occupational therapy to use practices that increase diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and anti-oppression. Anvarizadeh is also the youngest and first Black and Iranian woman to become vice president of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

During her time as director of admissions, Anvarizadeh set out to establish a more holistic admissions process, she said in a 2020 USC Chan Youtube video.

“[Hollistic admissions is] just not looking at your test scores, your GRE … but [it’s] looking at other aspects of who you are. That’s looking at your core values, your thoughts about diversity, equity, inclusion. Your thoughts about healthcare related issues on the systemic level, your thoughts [on] your leadership,” Anvarizadeh said. “We want to know all of you and we want to know all factors of you that make you a great OT.”

One of the elements added to USC’s application process during Anvarizadeh’s time as director was a personal video statement, where applicants had the opportunity to “present themselves holistically in front of a camera,” Anvarizadeh said in the video. “You’ll also have the opportunity to write, but you also have the opportunity to show who you are.”

For the new admissions cycle for fall of 2023, USC Chan removed the personal video statement, which they say is due to a switch to rolling admissions.

This effort to make admissions more holistic is one of the main reasons students and faculty are rallying to reinstate Anvarizadeh, they say.

Dejaney Clark, an occupational therapy master’s student, was one of the students who sought further information about Anvarizadeh’s demotion. In the fall 2022 semester, she was part of a group of students who wrote an open letter to the occupational therapy division, expressing their concerns about the change in leadership.

“As students who were admitted through the holistic admissions process, spearheaded by Dr. Arameh Anvarizadeh, we are invested in continuing the efforts to increase diversity both within the Division and in the profession at large,” the letter read.

The Division of Occupational Therapy’s faculty took a month to reply, according to the collective.

“We really wanted to have a dialogue. We wanted to know more. We wanted to understand why this was happening?” Clark said.

In November 2022, the Division held a student forum so students could express their concerns and the university could respond. Around 100 students were there, according to assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy Janis Yue.

“That’s just how many students felt impacted by it,” Yue said.

Most university students probably don’t know who their director of admissions is, but occupational therapy masters and Ph.D. at USC students are the exceptions, the collective says.

“I think about the leadership team [at USC], and I don’t know them. They don’t know me. They don’t know the students,” Clark said. “But how can you lead a student body and not know the student body? I think that’s very problematic.”

But that does not apply to Anvarizadeh, Clark says.

“The one thing about Dr. Anvarizadeh that was different is the fact that she knew us. She knew every single one of us. Even when I was applying to the program, she took the time to meet with me over and over and over again, answer my questions [and] make me feel comfortable,” Clark said. “Those conversations are honestly the only reason why I’m at USC in the first place.”

Clark is not the only one with this type of story.

Before Yue joined the faculty last year, she was a graduate student at USC, where she also completed her undergraduate studies.

“I think, on the one hand, it’s really a testament to how many genuine relationships Dr. A has really built with students,” Yue said. “Now that I’ve gotten involved in this cause and really learned about a lot more students’ stories, so many students have told me, ‘Dr. A was the person that I talk to,’ ‘I asked questions when I was applying to this program and she always made time for me and never made me feel like I was a burden.’ And she just really created [a] safe environment for students.”

Both Yue and Clark argued this type of commitment allowed for a more diverse class of occupational therapy students under Anvarizadeh.

Yue attended the OT program as a student from 2018 to 2021 and Anvarizadeh joined the admissions team in 2019. Yue said her class of 145, admitted before Anvarizadeh took over as director of admissions, only had two Black students.

Yue believes since Anvarizadeh has been gone, there’s been a visible decrease in diversity among admitted students. Clark shares a similar view.

Clark believes that before she started her program there was a notable jump in the number of Black students.

“Obviously, there was a big jump because Dr. Anvarizadeh put in the work to make sure that we felt comfortable to be here and we felt like we belonged,” Clark said.

Although Clark noticed the diversity in the occupational therapy student body when she first arrived at USC, she also noticed it fall once Anvarizadeh was gone.

“It wasn’t just Black students that we saw. It was all identities. It was the LGBT community. It was Latinx students, it was disabled students, it was veterans. It was all identities represented in my class,” Clark said. “And literally the year after, when she was on maternity leave and there [were] other people doing admissions, it was, I think, all the way down to maybe eight Black students. And I think that that pattern is probably just going to continue and go back down.”

In a statement made by the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy regarding the claims made by the collective, the Division said:

“The USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy cherishes diversity in both its workforce and student body. We have met with faculty, staff, and students to hear their concerns, and will continue discussing with them how the school can build on its efforts to advance equity, inclusion, and diversity. The university must respect its employees’ privacy rights and we therefore cannot discuss individual personnel matters.”

Annenberg Media requested data on the demographics of admitted and current students of the occupational therapy program multiple times, but USC was not able to provide any information and responded by sending university-wide demographics which do not specifically reflect the student body of the occupational therapy program.

Clark argues that within occupational therapy, the discussion of diversity cannot only be about diversity in the classroom because a lack of diversity in the classroom also means a lack of diversity in healthcare.

“When you don’t allow students of diverse backgrounds into these programs, then we can no longer be practitioners. And then that means there’s fewer practitioners in hospitals and in outpatient settings who can actually be there for a diverse group of patients and make a difference in the field,” Clark said.

The occupational therapy professional field is predominantly white, as the group represents 82.5% of all OTs, according to a 2022 report from the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

“I have grandparents who have been mistreated in health care systems because of their income status and because of their ethnicities, and it hurt.,” Clark said. " That’s why I went into the field in the first place of occupational therapy because I am very passionate about all individuals having access to health care and a quality lifestyle. "

More information on the collective’s demands can be found in their group’s public petition.