Earlier this month was the one year anniversary of my arrival at the University of Maryland. Before that, I served for 27 years at the federal level of public health as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps. Together with my 6,700 fellow uniformed health officers serving in locations around the world, my mission was to promote, protect, and advance the health and safety of our nation.
I am honored to serve in my new mission in public health – playing a role in the education of the next generation of leaders as public health continues to evolve in the 21st century. I have been reflecting on my first year as dean of the UMD School of Public Health (SPH) and all that has happened. I share some of my reflections on both the good and the challenging with you here.
Celebrating Ten Years of the SPH
Among the highlights, we celebrated the first decade of our existence and growth as a school of public health and recognized the tenth anniversary of our school’s launch on September 27. On the shoulders of the previous deans (founding dean Bob Gold and my predecessor Jane Clark, pictured with me and Provost Mary Ann Rankin), our excellent faculty and staff, and the dedication of our students, we’ve become a world-class center for the education of the next generation of leaders in public health.
I’ve had the honor to preside over the graduation of 692 undergraduates and 98 graduate students in the May and December commencements, and now eagerly await their impact on the world. We’ve matriculated 248 new undergrads and 127 new graduate students who begin an exciting path at SPH. We now have the fourth and sixth most popular majors at UMD (Public Health Science with 852 students and Kinesiology with 838), with 2285 total undergraduates across our four degree programs and 433 graduate students.
We’ve been successful in both hiring and promoting our faculty. Eight new faculty members have joined our ranks and eight others were promoted, of which three were underrepresented minority members of our faculty family. In fact, we believe that the simultaneous promotion and tenure of these three Black faculty members as a cohort - Drs. James Butler, Craig Fryer, and Sacoby Wilson - is a first in SPH history (and may be a first in UMD history). Our school continues to lead efforts to attract and retain a more diverse faculty body, which strengthens our school and university. In addition, we've had some staff turnover in this past year and are happy to welcome 15 new staff members to the SPH team.
We’ve been successful with several new research grants, including three new R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health, and our scholarly programs and students are making a difference in the world. Our SPH Alumni Network has been revitalized under the direction of vibrant new leaders (pictured with me in the photo at right) and a new Dean’s Council has been established with members passionate about our school and its mission. We’ve begun critical work in the areas of strategic planning, curriculum reform, and analyzing the need for new programs and innovation in education. Also, we’ve made headway in expanding our development and fund-raising efforts, and have recruited a new associate dean for development, Jennifer Schwartz, who joins us this week.
UMD reflects, questions, and leads tough conversations
As we celebrate growth in the school, we know that all was not perfect in this past year. Far from it. Lt. Richard W. Collins, III was murdered on our campus at the end of the Spring 2017 semester, which forced a critical reflection on our campus atmosphere that continues in 2018. Violent demonstrations by hate groups in Charlottesville, VA and elsewhere added to the sense of threat over the past year (photo below is from our UMD walk in solidarity with Charlottesville and UVA in August 2017). We struggled with many questions. How do we fight the hate and bias rearing up around us? What is our role as educators in leading the tough conversations about the campus climate and the legacy of racism, sexism and other biases in our society that may hinder our pursuit of equity, inclusion and diversity? We’ve had challenges with new national policies that impact the standing of evidence-based science and the health and safety of our communities, which include our immigrant brothers and sisters. How do we teach our students that politics is part of public health without falling into partisanship?
Internally, we have struggled to deal with some funding setbacks in the school. How do we ensure our programs continue to conduct research, educate our students and serve our communities as we have set out to do? We’ve been hit with the reality of declining state budgets and limited state lines to hire. How do we get the school to the next level when our hands are tied with money matters?
I will continue to reckon with these tough questions in my second year and I am bolstered by the strong SPH community of 160 faculty and staff, whose commitment to doing good and to advancing our mission is an inspiration to me every day.
Connecting with students, modeling healthy lifestyles
In my second year I will also continue to seek out ways to regularly engage with our incredible students. During my first year, I cherished my infrequent but precious time in the classroom. Being in the classroom allows me to gauge the pulse of our student body, and to share the experiences of my 30+ year career in public health. It’s great being Dean, but I think it’s more fun being Professor! One event in particular resonates with me. Last semester, I had the pleasure of giving a lecture to the 70 students in the UMD Global Public Health Scholars program. Part of the UMD College Park Scholars program, this is a living and learning community for first- and second-year students. It explores the connections between health, culture, economic development, and environmental sustainability around the world and how to advocate for the wellbeing of all communities.
The theme of my talk was “Public Health Transitions, the evolution of public health priorities through the ages.” We have seen incredible transitions and shifts in public health, such as the epidemiologic transition from a world where the cause-and-effect paradigm was ruled by infectious diseases to one where chronic, non-communicable diseases play an ever-growing role. As I prepared for the topic at hand, I also reflected on my own roles and transitions in public health.
My favorite definition of public health was put forth in 1920 by CEA Winslow: “The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals.” Built into this definition are the three p’s of the public health mission – preventing disease and injury, promoting health and wellness, with the goal of prolonging life with the highest of qualities. These words of Winslow also include the concept of health, which, as put forth by the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” Also built into this definition of public health is the role of the partnerships necessary to achieve the goals – it takes a village of the public and private sectors, our global, national, state and local communities, and individuals and families. Public health needs everyone.
I’m a firm believer in leadership by example and think of it as my duty to promote and live the core messages of the National Prevention Strategy, including active living and healthy eating (photo at right is from my first walk with a group of students last January). It starts with me as an individual but continues on as an influencer for those around me. To that end, I invite you to join me and other SPH members out on some of our UMD Activate group walks as part of the APHA 1 Billion Steps challenge. Anyone is welcome to join the group that meets daily at 12:15 at the MetalliTerp in the SPH building’s Powers Family lobby.
See you there!
Boris D. Lushniak, MD, MPH
Dean and Professor