Kelly Blake, assistant dean of communications, interviewed Dr. Fryer about his vision for the department and the challenges and opportunities of taking on this leadership role at this time. The following is a condensed version of the interview which has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you decide to accept the position as interim chair of the Department of Community Health?
I learned a great deal under the tutelage of Bob Gold during my time as associate chair of the department. When he initially said that he wanted to move my name forward as interim chair, I thought “No way.” I saw it as a potential opportunity for me, but much later in my career.
And honestly, I was concerned about my loss of autonomy as a faculty member by becoming department chair. But, ultimately it came down to, why not me and why not now?
Fundamentally, it was a critical opportunity to have this level of input in the direction of a department. And while I am only a few days into the role, the support from my department for my leadership has been fantastic.
Overall, my role is to help my department to shine - that is all of us - students, staff and faculty. This is a leadership position, but also a service position. I believe that the department understands that.
I think I bring a uniquely different perspective to being a department chair at the School of Public Health.
I have had very senior academicians - people of color who I look up to - say that they have never had the leadership opportunity I have at this point in my career.
It would have been convenient for me to say “not now, maybe in five years, 10 years…” but the opportunities for growth on all levels are more important than that convenience.
This is me stepping into the light. This is important for me and whoever will come after. After my two-year term, we will have the next department chair after a national search. I am excited about that and want to do my part to help guide our department at this time.
My role is to help my department shine. This is a leadership position, but also a service position.
What are your priorities for the Department of Behavioral and Community Health over the next two years?
My main goal is to continue to guide the department forward and build on the great leadership we’ve had in the past.
For the last two years under Bob Gold’s leadership, our department revised our strategic plan and plan of organization. Now it is time to implement the work. These goals include:
- Broadening and expanding our department’s research enterprise to increase collaborations across the school of public health, but also across the university and with other institutions.
- Enhancing teaching excellence - we have learned a lot this past year about both inclusive and student-engaged teaching and we need to apply those lessons as we return to in-person teaching and consider how they can help us prepare the future public health workforce.
- Delivering impactful service to Maryland stakeholders - This is not service just for service sake, but really having an impact on communities so that they see us as a true ally and resource.
- Advancing our commitment to anti-racism, equity and inclusion, which is happening with the ongoing work of a new standing departmental committee dedicated to ensuring greater inclusion in all that we do.
My biggest challenge as a chair is taking action as the world and UMD continues to try to recover from a global pandemic. We have unparalleled financial and personnel constraints at this time, but we don’t have any constraints on our creative minds. We are going to have to be much more creative and it is going to take all stakeholders in the department to pull together to achieve our goals, but I think that it can happen.
How would you describe the department's strengths and what makes this department unique?
Broadly speaking, our expertise lies in the fact that we are behavioral, prevention, and implementation scientists and practitioners with expertise in community engagement, health literacy and communication, translation of scientific findings with policymakers, and the examination of adverse outcomes across the lifespan. As such, we understand the critical importance of theory in behavior change to improve population health as well as the science behind the development of and how to promote the uptake of effective interventions.
The methods and approaches of respectful engagement of diverse community partners, something that has gotten increased attention over the past 18 months, is a significant strength of BCH. A few examplars are:
- the work of the Prevention Research Center with LGBTQ communities
- the department’s work with public housing residents regarding tobacco control and smoking policy
- the work of the Community THRIVES lab to support the health and well-being of foster youth
- the work of Black Men’s Health UMD regarding trauma and its related health outcomes
- the work of the CHAMP lab with Black faith-based organizations related to cancer disparities.
It is also notable that we are not just domestically focused, we have past and current scientific endeavors happening globally. Another feather in our cap is the impact of our faculty expertise on school-wide centers including the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy, the Center for Health Equity, and the University of Maryland Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Compared to other departments like us across the country, the structure of our undergraduate program makes us unique. A meaningful aspect of our program is the required semester-long internship. Our location as a school is critical to the exposure that our students get to the world of public health. We have undergraduate and graduate students interning at a multitude of government and non-profit agencies in the area exposing them to valuable opportunities that prepare them for their careers.
Our department is smaller compared to some of our nearby peers, and we are able to give students more focused attention. Many of our graduate students who come to us recognize this opportunity for building their skill sets for their future careers. That is essential to us as a public, land grant institution.
What are the opportunities for change or for introducing new programs or approaches to how the department operates?
Ultimately, as a department, I want to create synergy and connectedness through our research, teaching, and service endeavors. We are asking all of our faculty investigators to consider how to expand their reach with new research pursuits.
We are looking to recruit new faculty members who have an understanding of critical issues such as systemic racism and social justice, and who bring methodological expertise in research as well as the ability to teach those concepts.
Also, building on our strengths, we have added a new Peace Corps Prep undergraduate program and are considering other initiatives.
How you will approach leading the department as we work as a school and university to become an actively anti-racist institution and more inclusive academic community?
Much of this is connected to this concept of being a first. I am not the first person of color to lead a department in the history of our school, but I am the first for my department and I believe the first since we became a School of Public Health. The notion of “firsts” is complex. I truly believe that we should celebrate firsts. They are historical milestones and new opportunities for discovery on all levels (BCH, SPH, and UMD). On the other hand, given when that “first” happens, it can be an indication of structural and systemic barriers of oppression. It is 2021, and we are talking about the racial identity of a chair being a milestone. You must ask, why?
Yet, I think that representation matters.
So, I am excited about the changes that our department and the school is going through and want to celebrate in our school and across the university how we are addressing and increasing inclusion at all levels.
I have graduated from three institutions of higher learning and I could count on one hand the faculty of color I engaged with as a student. We understand that this is an issue across the nation; not just at UMD. I still meet students who tell me that I am the first Black professor they have ever had in class and those statements are always jarring.
If we are truly attempting to address the public’s health, specifically health inequities, diversity and inclusion are paramount to be effective.
So, this was definitely part of my answer and decision to the question of “why not me and why not now?”
If we are truly trying to change culture, we need synergy and we need action now.
I take leadership very seriously.
I was inspired by the school wanting to become an anti-racist institution, and the department too. If we are truly trying to change culture, we need synergy and we need action now.
We have been quite active in BCH. We created an ad hoc committee Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion (AREI), that James Butler and I co-chaired, charged with making sure that we are being as inclusive as possible in our research, teaching and service. We recently voted for it to be a standing committee in the department.
The undergraduate and graduate program directors led a process of curriculum mapping to review our core/required courses and whether and how we are exposing our students to issues of racism and its impacts on well-being as we think about inclusive teaching.
I have taught the core required course in health behavior theory for undergraduate students. The traditional foundational behavioral theories that I am required to teach for public health have all been developed by self-identified white men. It is important that we expose our students to theories developed by a diverse group of scholars.
This has been really significant because it connects teaching excellence to what is directly occurring in the world right now and that ultimately is what students are asking for. They don't want to be taught and trained in a bubble.
- Department of Behavioral and Community Health