The first hit came in the summer of 2007 as Florida experienced the leading edge of the Great Recession. Not far behind were renewed calls from some UF administrators to merge PHHP under another small college on campus and abandon the plan to develop a UF school of public health.
The college was already starting the fiscal year with a $1.3 million deficit because of a loss in reimbursement for some of its tuition dollars. On top of that, large recession-era budget cuts loomed and some faculty questioned whether it was the right time for PHHP to expand.
“That was a really, really challenging time,” Perri said. “We had already started to do the buildout to become accredited as a school of public health, but there were a number of very important steps that had to take place. To get to that point, we needed to add 30 new faculty in public health, and we were just over halfway there. We also needed to get approval for new Ph.D. programs in epidemiology and biostatistics.”
Despite all the obstacles, Perri felt the right decision was to move forward with developing a school of public health.
“Even though over the short run that was going to be difficult for us, over the long run it had so many benefits to us, the university and the state,” Perri said.
Mary Peoples-Sheps, Dr.P.H., who joined the college administration in 2004 and retired in 2014 as senior associate dean for public health, credits Perri’s collaborative decision-making approach with his success at consensus building during this period, which also coincided with a university-required closure of one of the college’s degree programs.
“Mike did a wonderful job of working with people,” she said. “In his inimitable way, he was honest and straightforward about where things were and what he was expecting in the future, and it worked. He instituted measures that allowed the college to still continue to thrive, while cutting back on things that were not as important as our key missions. Those were hard decisions to make right off the bat, but he made them and he made them as palatable as humanly possible. And we survived and thrived.”
The college met a key milestone later that year when the university took its proposal for the new doctoral programs in epidemiology and biostatistics to Florida’s Board of Governors, the governing board of the state university system. The proposal was not expected to pass because of the state’s financial issues. UF leadership hoped for a best case scenario of a vote postponement to the following year. After a persuasive speech from then UF president Bernie Machen, the board voted to approve the degree programs.
“That was a big victory,” Perri said. “Having the approval for these Ph.D. programs allowed us to move forward toward seeking accreditation as a school of public health. It also gave us assurance that we were going to be able to maintain our independence as a college and continue to exist.”
In 2009, the college received accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health, a feat that required more than one creative solution to overcome the fact that the college was still growing in its public health enterprise. Perri was appointed dean after a national search, giving him the opportunity to see initiatives he had started as interim dean, including programs to encourage collaboration between public health and health professions faculty and outreach in Haiti, come to fruition.