Co-authored by Dean Lisa Sullivan
Before we begin today’s note, an acknowledgement of last week’s shooting in Plano, Texas. It is striking how little media coverage the shooting, which killed eight, has received, perhaps reminding us how accustomed our country has become to gun violence. Such events should never be allowed to become normal, nor should we ever lose sight of our potential to prevent them by taking action at the political level. This falls within our remit of making the acceptable unacceptable, working to change minds, and, ultimately, culture and laws, for the health of all. It is particularly troubling to discuss this new incident of gun violence while noting that the National Institutes of Health has just dropped its only source of funding for gun-related research, as just reported by the journal Science.
On to today’s note. As we begin the new academic year, we find ourselves reflecting on the qualities we seek to instill here at SPH through excellence and innovation in education, and on the type of public health practitioner we are looking to create. Centrally, our aim is to produce professionals whose knowledge is broad, interdisciplinary, and grounded in deep, specialized study of the conditions that shape the health of populations. It was with these goals in mind—to provide our students with both a breadth and depth of knowledge—that we have redesigned our MPH, structuring it around a new Integrated Core Curriculum and offering Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificates to equip our students for professional practice. This program is based on the work of a school-wide task force, and is meant to prepare students not only for how public health is currently practiced, but for how it will likely be practiced in the future, based on emerging trends.
This work of continually refining our program to meet the demands of the moment is just one piece of the larger story of public health education in this country. Schools of public health are a relatively recent innovation in the US, only about 100 years old. Public health training and curricula are therefore still in a state of evolution, as schools work to offer degrees that are ever-better suited to the demands of the field. A Note on how we can keep pace with this evolution, by providing students with an education that has both breadth and depth, positioning them to thrive in, and shape, the changing world in which their careers will unfold.
Schools of public health emerged to meet specific, pressing needs in society; as such, providing a depth of specialization has always been part of our remit. This specialization was key to an early model of what public health education could be in the US. In 1913, the Rockefeller Foundation convened a conference of public health leaders and foundation officials to discuss creating an educational framework that could produce a new class of public health professional. Schools linked to medicine, but with their own distinct, prevention-oriented identities, would form the basis for this profession, and the 1913 deliberations led to a report envisioning what these institutions could look like. The Welch-Rose report laid out a plan for a school centered around an “institute of hygiene,” where students would learn the areas of specialization necessary for a career in public health. Epidemiology, sanitary engineering, and hospital administration are just a few of the subjects recommended by the report. The report also advocates for an interdisciplinary approach to public health, suggesting an eclectic range of areas where a public health professional ought to be conversant. About a century after the report’s release, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) convened the Framing the Future Task Force to “re-vision the role of education for public health 100 years after the Welch-Rose Report.” The task force’s report made a number of suggestions for how the 21st century MPH might be designed, including that “the common element of all MPH degrees should be a well-designed core that covers critical and interdisciplinary content in foundational areas of public health.” The report also calls for in-depth, skills-based training in traditional and emerging specialty areas that meet the needs of employers.
Our new MPH takes these recommendations to heart, combining interdisciplinary training in a broad range of topics with in-depth, specialized study. The new Integrated Core Curriculum provides a foundation of knowledge rooted in the essentials of public health—the basic fluencies a public health professional must have, regardless of how she chooses to develop her skills. In this way, our Integrated Core Curriculum helps us ensure that our students cultivate deep expertise, in keeping with the tradition of specialization that has uniquely characterized public health education since the beginning. Our new MPH also offers an interdisciplinary focus by allowing students to select certificates in a functional area and a context area, with the former encompassing a number of professional skills and the latter pertaining to key populations or areas of public health interest.
By combining breadth and depth in this way, our new curriculum could be described as “going diagonal,” to borrow a phrase used to describe the combination of “horizontal” and “vertical” approaches to building health systems. Going diagonal blends the general with the specific, the broad foundation with rigorous specialization, to create the best possible public health practitioners, who can, in turn, create the healthiest possible populations. It also reflects the experiential diversity of our growing school community. Students come to SPH with a wide range of aptitudes and aspirations; our flexible MPH is crafted to help them leverage their potential into professional success, regardless of how they choose to apply their education. Our Integrated Core Curriculum keeps students grounded in the fundamentals of public health, while our Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificates provide experience in everything from epidemiology and biostatistics, to health policy and law, to pharmaceuticals, to global health, to mental health and substance use. In this sense, it could be said that we are trying to create a “diagonal student.”
At heart, the new MPH is meant to lay the groundwork for the future, building the next generation of public health leaders. Yet it also represents commitment to, and continuity with, the best traditions of the past, informed as it is by the principles articulated in the Welch-Rose report and embodied by the earliest schools of public health. This new academic year is a chance to continue this process of creative integration—this diagonal approach—by combining the past with the future, the broad-ranging with the specialized, to carry forward a program, and a profession, that is more robust than ever.
I hope everyone has a terrific week. Until next week.
Sandro Galea, MD, DrPH
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor
Boston University School of Public Health
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Eric DelGizzo for his contributions to this Dean’s Note, and to the work of the many members of the BU community who contributed to the evolution of the BU MPH.
Previous Dean’s Notes are archived at: https://www.bu.edu/sph/tag/deans-note/