Circling Arizona: Mission Creep at a State University

Steven Anderson

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by an Argus volunteer from Phoenix, AZ. The opinions expressed are those of Mr. Anderson, and not necessarily of the NAS.

I have three children who graduated from Arizona State University. They each received a degree, not an education. The experience made me wonder, “What does a public university that receives tax funding and charges grandiose tuition do with all its money?” So I began to look into some programs financed by ASU.

Among ASU’s more doubtful ventures is the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center (SIRC), “an Exploratory Center of Excellence conducting transdisciplinary minority health and health disparities research, training and community outreach.”  

That’s a lot to swallow in one gulp. Let’s try some bite-sized pieces.

“Disparity” means lack of equality between things or people. Health disparities, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), refer to “persistent gaps between the health status of minorities and non-minorities in the United States.” HHS explains, “Despite continued advances in health care and technology, racial and ethnic minorities continue to have more disease, disability, and premature death than non-minorities.” The Department attributes the problem to two main causes: (1) inadequate access to care:

Barriers to care can result from economic, geographic, linguistic, cultural, and health care financing issues. Even when minorities have similar levels of access to care, health insurance and education, the quality and intensity of health care they receive are often poor.

and (2) substandard quality of care:

Lower quality care has many causes, including patient-provider miscommunication, provider discrimination, stereotyping, or prejudice.

Under HHS’s definition, “health disparities” mean that because of bias, minorities receive inferior health care. SIRC believes that the solution is to “prevent and reduce the burden of health disparities in the overall quality of life of communities of the Southwest.” But how does SIRC expect to accomplish this? Oddly, SIRC does not seek simply to provide better health care. Rather, SIRC’s primary strategy is to provide “culturally grounded” education to combat substance use among minority adolescents.

Thus, though you might not guess it from the name “Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center,” this component of ASU is really a venture in finding culturally sensitive ways to tell Native American kids to stay off—or get off—drugs. Well actually it’s a little bit broader. SIRC also addresses Mexican American youth, and it also ventures into other issues such as domestic violence, body image, and gender identity, usually in connection with drug abuse.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is “compelling evidence” for minority health disparities, and CDC supplies an annual National Healthcare Disparities Report that offers some details.

All races and ethnicities have different health problems at unequal percentage rates. For example, African Americans or blacks can contract sickle cell anemia, whereas whites do not. Jewish males have a higher rate of a certain sarcoma than any other racial or ethnic group. Pima Indians are subject to a higher rate of diabetes than other ethnic and racial groups.

Are these examples of minority health disparities? No. Physiology differences are not health disparities but a reinforcement of how unique all of us are, even in our own ethnic and racial identity. Our DNA, not our racial or ethnic group, provides the pathway to understanding our biological health differences. Differences in health between ethnic groups do not necessarily reflect differences in the quality of health care between groups.

While there may be real differences in the quality of health care that is available for different ethnic groups, SIRC’s focus on these differences is more ideological than medical. Both Health and Human Services and SIRC suggest that certain minorities are excluded from or receive sub-standard health care. But that is to make a sweeping generalization about minorities, who come from a spectrum of socioeconomic classes. Some may be poor, some middle class, and others wealthy, just like their majority counterparts. How then does one filter the necessary socioeconomic data to arrive at a valid conclusion of a health disparity?

By law, emergency care may not be refused to anyone. All schoolchildren must be vaccinated to attend school. There are programs for free lunches, dental and vision checkups in public elementary and high schools. In Arizona, any adult who fails to meet a minimum monetary threshold is eligible for state paid health insurance or AHCCCS.  A significant percentage of those employed have health insurance with the participation of their employer. And anyone over 65 is entitled to Medicare.

That leaves as the remaining class the working poor: those who make too much money to qualify for state funded health care but have no health insurance. This class of people encompasses all ethnic groups, not just minorities. There is no evidence suggesting that any ethnic or racial group of citizens is outside the health care system.

SIRC receives funding from three main taxpayer funded grants. These include a P20 grant from the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. SIRC also receives grants from Medicare and Medicaid Services, and from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. ASU is an additional source for funding.

In fact, SIRC’s ties to ASU are more than just monetary. SIRC Director Flavio F. Marsiglia is also the “Distinguished Foundation Professor of Cultural Diversity and Health” at ASU’s School of Social Work. The director of research, Steven S. Kulis, is also a professor of sociology at ASU. Additionally, Dr. Kulis is an affiliated faculty member in the School of Social Work, Women & Gender Studies, and the School of Justice and Social Inquiry. A scan of the Core Team & Affiliates page shows that nearly everyone involved in the Research Center are professors at ASU. Most of them are from the School of Social Work.

SIRC’s Publication web page cites 82 books and articles published by the Research Center. Many of the publications cite Monterrey, Mexico as the research location. Is that SIRC’s domain? Monterrey is indeed in the Southwest, just not in the U.S.

SIRC’s research often looks like an attempt to provide empirical data to support a pre-established conclusion, namely, that America oppresses minority groups and health care is just another avenue of oppression. Why expend taxpayer funds on redundant statistical information, without a real health or medical care solution as the objective?

The true health care solution lies with those who now risk everything on developing a specific, DNA tailored health care delivery solution. These entities exist by the hundreds, mostly in the penny stocks, and lower priced stocks because of the high degree of risk. They are capitalized not by taxpayer funded grants, but by private investors who believe in the possibilities.

Studies such as those by SIRC do not offer real health or any medical solutions. Rather, they provide financial support to ideologues whose work masquerades as legitimate scientific study.

If real academic goals and performance were required, and real solutions were demanded of those who receive these grants, there would be far fewer takers.


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