University plans to open new School of Public Health

| Junior News Editor

For the first time in 100 years, Washington University is creating a new school division: the School of Public Health.

The School of Public Health will be formed by combining existing aspects of Public Health across the University. The educational programming will include a master’s degree and doctoral program along with a new undergraduate major in public health. 

The school will have a particular focus on educating students about intersecting factors of public health — such as environmental health factors and racial disparities in healthcare — and developing equitable routes to provide healthcare. 

The College of Arts and Sciences will be involved in the development of the undergraduate major, and there are tentative plans to house the new major in Arts and Sciences. This plan would avoid the issue of having to create new requirements for an entirely separate undergraduate school while still utilizing the new school’s pooled resources.

Faculty, staff, and students are all actively involved in the process of making different key decisions, such as determining how to best coordinate new education programs. Although the University plans to transition some graduate programs to the new School of Public Health, administrators want to ensure continuity in delivering existing programming for master’s and Ph.D. students.

The new school is planned to be highly collaborative and interdisciplinary, which is a core component of Here and Next, the University’s academic plan that emphasizes an integrative approach to education. 

Debra Haire-Joshu, who holds the Joyce and Chauncy Buchheit Professorship in Public Health, has been appointed as one of two faculty leads to advance the implementation planning for the new school. 

Haire-Joshu said increased education on public health was made a necessity by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re coming out of a pandemic, so we really had a snap course on how important public health is,” Haire-Joshu said. “We have about 350+ investigators all across the university who do some kind of public-health research. That’s spread out over the Brown School, the School of Law, the undergraduate schools, and especially the School of Medicine. We believe it’s time to really pull the facets together so that the sum of what we’re doing is greater than the many parts.”

Haire-Joshu said that increasing health equity is another priority of the University, and having a dedicated School of Public Health would help pool resources to assist in research, particularly for disadvantaged groups.

“A lot of our prevention work is [based] around policy work,” Haire-Joshu said. “COVID has pointed out many inequities, and some people were just hit much harder than others by COVID. Public health really works towards eliminating those disparities.” 

She said the process of creating the new school is streamlined by the existing strengths in the School of Medicine and Brown School. She explained that the accreditation process for the program is underway, and an application for a new school will be submitted to the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) in 2024. Pending the review process, CEPH will ideally fully accredit the new school in 2026.

In terms of the new school’s physical location, Haire-Joshu said it has not been determined yet, beyond the pre-existing facilities in the Brown School. 

“We get asked that all the time, but there’s been no decision yet. It’s several years out,” Haire-Joshu said. “Right now, we’re housed in Hillman, but obviously, the school will grow. I think [that] for right now, we’re more focused on getting the school going, [so] conversations about where the school will be are not imminent.”

The new undergraduate major is being planned out to avoid a negative impact on similar majors, such as Global Health & Environment and Health Administration. 

In regards to how the new major will affect enrollment in other subjects, Anthropology Professor Tristram R. Kidder said that students will pick and choose what aspects of health they want to involve themselves in based on their interests. 

“Some students will want to stay in anthropology,” Kidder said. “Some students are going to stay in biology, and some students may decide that public health is really what they want to focus on. Ultimately, the students are going to decide in the long run what they want to do and what they find interesting.” 

Along with students, faculty will also have the opportunity to practice more interdisciplinary ways of teaching. Kidder said that professors will be able to do joint-appointments, where they can teach in two different fields of study. While professors in joint-appointments already exist, typically, their two fields are within the same school division, whereas the School of Public Health will make it more common to connect two different schools. 

“A faculty member in Environmental Studies might end up with a part-time appointment in Public Health,” Kidder said. “She would have a feel on both sides of the intellectual program. So you could see a model where, for example, an English professor who teaches about health, morality, and sexuality in Victorian England could be teaching in the Public Health major while still being a professor of English.”

Kidder said that, along with the more clear-cut connections like the University’s Medical School and Brown School, less obviously related divisions such as the McKelvey School of Engineering and the Sam Fox School of Art and Design will be involved with the School of Public Health.  

“I think [that] looking at the intersection of health, equity, social justice, and politics will be very interesting,” Kidder said. “I could envision a world where a student who’s interested in graphic communication wants to get a degree [in public health] because she’s also interested in health-related communication.”

In regards to how many students are projected to study in the new school at the undergraduate level, Kidder said a comparable model is the Global Health & Environment major, which has a couple hundred students. 

First-year student Emanoeel Ghabrial, who majors in Biomedical Engineering, said he would be interested in public health — especially as a pre-med student.

“Public health tends to play into medicine,” Ghabrial said. “I mean, it’s in the name — public health, right? A good number of WashU students are pre-med, and I feel like public health is something that a lot of people would be interested in exploring to some degree, including me.”

Haire-Joshu said the model of public health that the University wants to develop stands out from other universities because of its strong focus on team science, which is science that utilizes cross-disciplinary work to solve complicated issues. 

“It’s kind of a new model, which is why it’s taking some time,” Haire-Joshu said. “A lot of universities have a very siloed model of public health. We have an opportunity here because it’s coming out of strategic planning, to really try to design it around team science. Team science is the only thing that’s going to work with complex problems.”

Kidder said that the interdisciplinary aspects of education are going to make the new school not only effective in terms of finding solutions but also in instructing students.

“I want all of our students to come away with a broad education that exposes them to various modes of inquiry,” Kidder said. “How to think about humans, how to think about the natural world, how to think about how those interact. I also want them to appreciate the historical, social, political, [and] economic context of various decisions about health.”

Ghabrial said interdisciplinary education would help in combating ignorance, and that having a theoretical requirement in some kind of public health-related course could help pre-med students. 

“I feel like ignorance is a big issue in general,” Ghabrial said. “Just in any topic, really. It would help people understand more about public health. I don’t know enough [about public health], and I know that, and I wish I knew more.”

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Beverly Wendland said the school has a key opportunity to address health-related disparities with the new School of Public Health.

“In our region, we see major disparities by race and zip code around infant mortality, lead exposure, and malnutrition,” Wendland said. “We have such talented faculty in public health, and we are in a position to expand the scale of our research and educational programming. The creation of a new school, in partnership with our community, will enable us to develop local solutions that we [utilize] globally, and our global partnerships can inform the work we do in our region and in our nation.”

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.