As I conclude my tenure as dean of the College of Public Health and Health and Professions, I find myself experiencing an array of emotions. My feelings include a degree of trepidation about my transition to an emeritus role, a sense of great pride in our many accomplishments, and most of all, a feeling of heartfelt gratitude to all who contributed to the success of the college over the past 15 years.
My time as dean began in June 2007, just as the economic retrenchment that later became known as the Great Recession began in the state of Florida. Within a year, the university’s state support had been reduced by 25%, and cuts in academic programs and reductions in faculty and staff cast a dark shadow over the college. Our plans to seek accreditation as a school of public health were put in doubt, and there were serious conversations about the potential closure of the college or its merger with another unit.
With the stalwart support of Dr. Doug Barrett, then senior vice president for health affairs (SVPHA), we moved forward. “Tell them this ship has set sail and is not returning to port,” he advised. With Dr. Barrett’s help, we successfully fended off attempts to close or merge the college, and we secured the resources to make our accreditation journey possible. With her many years of experience in public health education, Dr. Mary Peoples-Sheps, senior associate dean, played a central role in charting our course to accreditation, and Dr. Stephanie Hanson, our executive associate dean, guided us through the maze of administrative challenges that faced us at the state and local levels.
Once the decisions were made to forego a potential merger and to pursue accreditation, President Bernie Machen served as a strong proponent of PHHP and our aspirations. He accompanied me to a meeting of Florida’s Board of Governors in Fall 2007 and forcefully convinced the reluctant board to approve our request to add Ph.D. programs in epidemiology and biostatistics —prerequisites for accreditation. The PHHP faculty then pulled together to overcome doubts that a college with a 50-year history focused on “health professions” could embrace the addition of public health and create synergies that would advance our educational and research goals.
The achievement of accreditation in 2009 opened many doors for the college. It became easier for us to attract outstanding candidates to our faculty, and it allowed us the opportunity to expand our academic offerings. We added an online master’s in public health program, and we gained approval to offer a Ph.D. in public health with concentrations in environmental health, social and behavioral sciences, and one health. In addition, we successfully garnered Provost Joe Glover’s support to add a bachelor’s degree in public health.
The growth of our academic programs continued with the strong support of Dr. David Guzick, during his time as SVPHA. Through UF’s Preeminence Initiative, Dr. Guzick helped us recruit 10 senior scholars to our college — six more than originally planned. Our expansion was further fueled by the Faculty 500 Initiative. We recruited 26 additional faculty to enhance our educational and research endeavors. We obtained approval to offer a doctorate in occupational therapy, and we added an array of federally funded training programs that helped us attract outstanding graduate students.
As the college expanded, our research programs flourished, growing in scope and significance and rising in national stature. Indeed, among the 54 schools of public health at public institutions, PHHP is currently ranked ninth in research awards from the National Institutes of Health. Our faculty are publishing their findings in the world’s leading scientific journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, JAMA and Science. Our research studies are addressing a wide array of critical problems in public health and health care. Moreover, with the support of our current SVPHA, Dr. David Nelson, we have successfully recruited nine faculty with expertise in artificial intelligence. Their research will further advance our abilities to create new knowledge and innovative methods that will enhance health and health care.
Over the years, the PHHP’s service activities have expanded substantially. Our work during the COVID-19 pandemic exemplified the college’s significant contributions to communities locally and globally. In 2020, before commercially available tests for COVID were offered, our faculty developed and utilized research assays to test university members and community residents. Our students served as contact tracers at Department of Health sites across the state, and our faculty and students went on to play critical roles in UF Health’s Screen, Test & Protect program, serving as disease investigators and volunteering at vaccination clinics. Our faculty also provided campus and community wastewater surveillance, combated misinformation through numerous national media interviews, and collaborated with the World Health Organization on the implementation and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccine and treatment trials.
As I look back over the past 15 years, I am very proud of our accomplishments as a college, and I am deeply grateful to so many individuals. We have expanded our degree programs from 12 to 20, and we have increased student enrollment from 1,700 to 3,000. The size of our faculty has grown from 105 to 190, and our research awards have risen from $14 million to $45 million per year. More importantly, our educational, research and service contributions are improving the lives of individuals and communities, locally, nationally and across the globe. Knowing that our college is making a difference in the lives of so many fills me with a deep sense of gratitude. I am truly grateful for the tireless efforts of our dedicated faculty, staff and students who have contributed so much to the health and wellbeing of so many. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all the members of the PHHP family for allowing me the opportunity to serve with them in this most meaningful endeavor.