Blogging about public health from a dean's vantage point
November 26, 2007, I published the first post for a new blog I called Monday Morning.
Over each weekend, I would reflect on the prior week and write a post for Monday Morning. The blog reflected issues of the day, sometimes related primarily to our school, but more often on topics with broader relevance and resonance. While I did not always achieve my goal of posting weekly, I published 524 posts, including this, my final post. The table below shows the topics about which I wrote.
I am grateful to Lisa Warren, who has been a steadfast editor, fact finder, fact-checker, and authentic voice for viewing issues from multiple perspectives, and to Linda Kastleman, before Lisa, for the same. Our Communications team also provided helpful comments, insights, and production assistance. I tried to have my posts reviewed by multiple people from diverse backgrounds, and I appreciate everyone who gave feedback, suggested topics, and offered additional ways of thinking about issues. The blog will be available to read here, but this is my last post. While I wrote to express my views, I wrote while dean of the school. There will be a new dean of the Gillings School on August 31, and continuing Monday Morning would be inappropriate.
Passing the baton, with gratitude
As I step down after more than 17 years as dean, I want to share my deepest, most heartfelt thanks to the many people who supported me, my role, and the school. The new dean of the Gillings School, Nancy Messonnier, MD, is the right person to lead now. Dr. Messonnier is eminently qualified by virtue of her training, including the Epidemiologic Intelligence Service, her more than 20 years’ experience of leadership in infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and her recent leadership of pandemic preparedness and health systems at the Skoll Foundation.
Being dean is not a job one can do alone. I am grateful to the amazing staff in the Gillings School’s Dean’s Office, the school’s leadership team and UNC leaders, including chancellor, provost, financial team, other deans at UNC-Chapel Hill, and deans and directors of other universities’ schools and programs of public health. There is not room here to identify everyone who has made a difference.
The pandemic changed the importance and urgency of public health, resources for public health, and how we work. The past few years have taken a toll on the Gillings community and others. As I have said before, the Gillings School runs on love; it is the fuel that sustains us. Volunteerism also is essential to a well-engineered school. This is true of our school, but also of other mission-driven organizations, and the burdens should be distributed equitably.
Challenges, changes, investments, impact
Change is the nature of institutions. Bob Dylan famously sang, “the times they are a-changing,” and times always have been changing, although it feels as though the pace has accelerated. Since I became dean in 2005, there have been four U.S. presidents, including the first Black president, three N.C. governors, six UNC System presidents, four UNC-Chapel Hill chancellors and six provosts. We have worked effectively with them all. Each has had strengths, and fortunately, they all have seen the value of our school. That is, in part, because we have communicated our commitment and value to North Carolina, in addition to our global reach.
The school’s new strategic plan for practice, new associate dean for practice, and enhanced investment in public health practice will make Gillings’ impact even greater. The school’s strength must be local, national, and global.
Since I became dean, we have endured challenges we never could have predicted, like Hurricane Katrina, which struck with great brutality in late August 2005, and the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and exacted tremendous pain. We did our best to keep the school and communities strong, even during the worst of times, and many people contributed to this.
In 2018, we saw the Confederate statue on our campus toppled—a good thing. We were outraged by the unjust murders of Black people in this country, including George Floyd and too many others. We worked to improve the health of people who have been marginalized and underserved, and those subjected to environmental injustice. We stood against racial, gender, sexual, and other inequities. We have sought ways to control gun violence and end deaths from opioids. These issues are public health. Recognition of inequities and other threats will require us to continue being catalysts and outspoken advocates for positive change.
While there have been serious threats and challenges, we also have experienced extraordinary successes and joys, including the $50 million gift from the Gillings family that keeps on giving: It has enabled us to invest in innovation in a substantial way, fueling Gillings Innovation Labs and bringing an entrepreneur-in-residence and several amazing faculty members into the school, along with supporting Gillings Merit Scholars. These programs continue to develop and focus increasingly on equity.
We changed the school’s academic programs, including adoption of a schoolwide MPH degree with relevant concentrations, collaboration on a joint degree with UNC-Asheville and Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), and addition of MPH@UNC. These initiatives strengthened the school’s quality, reach, access, and financial position.
Issues of consequence today and tomorrow
Gillings research is amazing. Last year, our researchers generated ~$280M in research funding. Every day, someone at Gillings is discovering something that matters in the world and getting it out where it improves health and the environment. The pace of contributions accelerated dramatically during the pandemic, and our people made a difference in local communities and the world, including through research on vaccines and vaccine hesitancy, treatments for COVID-19, environmental justice, cancer, heart disease and stroke, opioid use, maternal and child health, nutrition, health policy, and so many other areas. Partnerships will continue with people from communities to understand their needs and translate research into practice. In the end, it is about improved lives and the environment.
The Gillings School is a big tent. Over the past decade, our faculty, staff, and students have become increasingly diverse: 24% of students now come from historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups, but we cannot stop there. The Gillings School of the future should be even more diverse and inclusive.
Gillings, and all schools, should be places where the expression of all political points of view is encouraged, and where difficult conversations are held with civility and curiosity. Public health touches almost every issue of consequence. Gillings people, fueled by data, sound arguments and deep caring, should continue to be courageous and unafraid to tackle controversy.
There will be no shortage of old and new problems to solve in the years ahead—inequities, climate, preventing future pandemics, gun violence and opioid deaths; preserving reproductive rights, and dealing with the rising incidence of non-communicable diseases. The research, practice, education, and training that take place across robust public health systems, including schools of public health like Gillings, are essential to find and implement innovative solutions to reduce these threats.
Writing Monday Morning was a joy and being dean of the Gillings School has been the greatest privilege of my life. Best wishes for good health, professional satisfaction, and joy.