With a background that includes time spent as a senior organist and choir director—and a high school friendship with one of the most successful R&B artists of all time—the dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine’s talents and interests involve much more than endodontics.
In celebration of Black History Month, The Daily spoke with Kenneth B. Chance, the first Black dean of the dental school, about his path from The Bronx to Cleveland.
A creative upbringing
Chance’s parents—George, a construction worker, and Janie, an educator—raised him and his two brothers to see the deep value in education. In his family, it was paramount.
“My parents sacrificed so much to raise my brothers and myself with all their love and devotion—and a sizable offering of discipline,” said Chance. “They were my greatest role models. They exposed us to tremendous opportunities and taught us that education is something no one can take from you.”
This philosophy included music education. Chance grew up in Southeast Bronx, New York, in the 1950s, where the air was filled with a strong, driving percussion of Latin music that inspired creativity across the neighborhood. Even the local school yard was filled with music—students expressed themselves through rhythm and song using anything they could find as instruments.
Inspired by his surroundings, Chance took years of classical piano lessons and, as a teenager, also studied gospel and jazz. While in high school, he performed at neighborhood talent shows where he met and befriended the late musician, Luther Vandross.
“We attended different high schools,” recounted Chance, “but always met up at the talent shows. He was very quiet—unassuming—and was playing drums when I met him. It wasn’t until later that he began singing.”
As Chance’s musical stylings evolved—he added jazz to his classical abilities—so did his opportunities. He worked as a senior organist and choir director and was later invited to play at the famous Apollo Theater. He credits music for shielding him from a negative path while also sharpening his levels of leadership, responsibility, cultural awareness and social skills.
But, when it came time to choose a career, Chance had to make a choice—would it be music, or something that was considered more…practical?
Luckily, Chance’s interests extended far beyond his music background.
Growing up, Chance was acutely aware of the lack of proper oral healthcare and oral health education in his community, which caused people in his neighborhood to miss school or work due to oral pain and other oral health-related conditions.
“I knew of family friends who were qualified but not given jobs because of their appearance due to missing or displaced teeth,” Chance explained. “I saw this as a detriment to the community, and these images motivated me to pursue a career in dentistry.”
Attending the prestigious Bronx High School of Science fanned that interest and provided him with the tools, work ethic and broader view to position him for a career in dentistry—even though he was one of a few students of color at the school.
As Chance furthered his education at Case Western Reserve as a member of the Class of 1979, he was one of three students of color. He continued to push forward and found a mentor in the late Jefferson J. Jones, Chance’s professor and chair of the department of endodontics for more than 35 years—and the first Black endodontist in the entire state of Ohio.
Familiar with what it felt like to be the “only” in a room, Jones spoke up for his students of color—validating their experiences and making them feel heard, welcomed and safe.
Following his dental school graduation, Chance completed his residency as the first Black—and also one of the most accomplished—general practice residents at the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in New York City.
Though he enjoyed general practice, his pivot to the academic side of dentistry began with Chance making a sacrifice. Francis Shovlin, chair of the Department of Endodontics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ, now part of Rutgers University, noticed the zeal Chance exuded in teaching dental students as a resident and he approached the young doctor with a proposition: He asked Chance to consider stepping away from seeing patients for a year to work as an assistant professor to see if he might like teaching just as much.
“After that year,” Chance said, “I was sold.”
Eleven years later, Chance became the interim chair of the Department of Endodontics at UMDNJ, which eventually opened doors for him at other institutions.
In 1997, he was named dean of the School of Dentistry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically Black academic health science centers dedicated to educating physicians, dentists, nurses and researchers.
In part to pay forward the impact his mentors had on his career, Chance championed several Black female faculty members at Meharry, including Sandra Harris, who had never met a female dentist prior to entering dental school.
“In the late 1990s, there were very few female faculty members at Meharry, but Dr. Chance encouraged all of us to become leaders in the dental profession,” said Harris, who, thanks to Chance’s support, became the first Black president of the American Association of Women Dentists.
Chance left Meharry to become the first Black professor and chief of endodontics at the University of Kentucky, serving in that role for 14 years while simultaneously serving on Case Western Reserve University’s Board of Trustees, which he joined in 2005.
When the position of dean at the university’s School of Dental Medicine became available, Chance leveraged his familiarity with the construction of the new Health Education Campus and Dental Clinic and applied. After a year-long national search, he was named the first Black dean of the university’s School of Dental Medicine.
“I am honored and privileged to serve as dean of my esteemed alma mater. I hope [my] position encourages other people of color and women to aspire to similar positions of their choice,” he shared.
A career in dentistry and academics might seem like a far cry from playing jazz and bumping elbows with Luther Vandross—but Chance sees similarities between music and being successful in any career.
“Music to me is life—when you’re doing well, you’re in rhythm with other people. Sometimes, though, we can get out of sync and need to return to that sweet spot,” he mused. “We all crave harmony.”