PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — At the start of his first “State of the School” address, one year into his tenure as dean of the Brown School of Public Health, Dr. Ashish K. Jha urged the audience to look around and take in the moment — a public health moment if there ever was one.
“Here we are: Open tent. Socially distanced. Many of you wearing masks,” Jha said.
Multiple effective vaccines against COVID-19 are freely available, yet people are taking health and safety precautions because, he said, the world is still fighting a pandemic that has exposed “weaknesses in our national public health system and the inability of that system to meet the urgent challenges of our time.”
Speaking to a Brown public health community of faculty, staff and newly arrived undergraduate and graduate students on Wednesday, Sept. 1, on the University’s Simmons Quad, Jha referred to the pandemic as a lens through which the school and the country as a whole could view lessons learned — and a focal point for charting a path for what needs to happen next.
“As a school, we have important and urgent opportunities to confront what COVID has exposed,” Jha said. “Because throughout history, pandemics have opened a window for action that wasn’t open before. How we choose to act is up to us.”
Jha detailed how COVID-19 has exposed challenges to community health across the world: systemic racial inequities that resulted in a disproportionate rate of COVID-19 deaths among people of color; failure of public health systems to effectively collect data, perform tests, trace contacts and vaccinate populations; deadly and widespread effects of science denial; and the dangerous efficiency of social media to amplify and disseminate misinformation, with real-world negative health consequences.
“We are now at a point — today, in 2021 — where if we wanted, we could prevent nearly every death in the world from COVID,” Jha said. “We have the tools, but not the will. That’s the moment we’re in.”
The dean noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the most critical insights into public health issues often come from teams of people willing to work across academic and professional boundaries. For example, he said, building, testing, producing and deploying billions of vaccines in a short time period required unprecedented collaboration among scientists, private industry and government leaders.
“So maybe the most salient lesson of this pandemic is also the most obvious: That at the end of the day, the hardest and most important problems are solved when people from different backgrounds, different disciplines and different lived experiences come together and work together,” Jha said. This is what makes Brown University special, he said. “Our structure, our size and, most importantly, our culture actually nurtures and rewards multi-disciplinary collaborations.”
Commitment to education, equity and opportunity
Jha, who became dean of the School of Public Health in September 2020, detailed the ways in which SPH students, faculty and staff are working to address pressing public health challenges. He also shared new plans for the future. As part an effort to expand the reach of the school’s education and training to ultimately improve global public health, Jha said that SPH would launch an online master of public health program in Fall 2022.
“This program will give people around the world access to our school, access to our faculty, and to their knowledge and wisdom,” Jha said. “It is a commitment to education, of course, but it is also a commitment to equity. To expanding opportunity.”
As another example of the school’s work to expand diversity among public health professionals, Jha cited the Health Equity Scholars program. Launched in the 2020-21 academic year and about to welcome its first full cohort of 12 scholars, the goal is to prepare MPH students from historically Black colleges and universities to address health disparities and become transformative leaders in public health research and careers.
“If you want to address systemic racism as a public health problem, you’ve got to change the face of public health leadership in America,” Jha said. “These scholars represent that change. They are a structural intervention into the heart of America’s public health systems.”
Jha noted that expanding representation among scholars from historically underrepresented groups extends to SPH faculty and students, too, as part of the University’s overall Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. Over the past 12 months, the school grew its ranks of tenure-track faculty from underrepresented groups by 60%, and applications to SPH programs from prospective students of color increased by 150%.
“If we are going to solve the big public health problems of our time, it’s very clear we need a diverse team of scholars, teachers and practitioners,” he said. “Of course we have more work to do, but this is progress… Increasingly, we are the becoming the place where people from all walks of life can join us, invest in their public health education and become part of the movement to make health better.”
Among other plans for the coming year, Jha said that SPH will launch a pandemic preparedness center; train public health leaders to combat misinformation; bring in faculty to lead work on the intersection of climate and health; make the school a leader in integrating data into key public health decisions; further strengthen the Hassenfeld Institute for Child Health Innovation with the goal of eliminating disparities in health outcomes for children in Rhode Island; and work more intentionally to become a global public health school by launching new programs, recruiting new faculty and building ties with institutions like the World Health Organization and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Transforming the field will not be easy, Jha said.
“The rules of public health have changed over the past 18 months,” he said. “But if we meet the challenges of this moment, I am 110% confident we are going to find ourselves in a better place… There is no place better prepared to meet this moment than Brown. To prepare for the public health crises we face, and those to come, by preparing our students and by preparing ourselves. This is a moment. But this is our movement.”