Donald Parsons: Transforming GW’s School of Public Health

In the heat of the health care debate last fall, The Hatchet reported that “Josef Reum, interim dean of the SPHHS, was tasked by the Board of Trustees to get involved in the debate”. A later Hatchet piece reported that SPHHS has been chronically out of compliance with the Board of Trustees’ requirements (Faculty Code) for all schools and departments to be primarily staffed with faculty members with long-term commitments to the University.

The two news items – the first indicating trustee concerns that GW is not the active participant in this critical policy debate, the second that there are extraordinarily few SPHHS faculty with long-term University commitments – are two sides of the same problem. However, unlike many GW academic shortcomings, this is one the University is actively resolving. A major transformation of SPHHS is underway that will make the school a more capable responder to future health care policy crises.

SPHHS was created in 1997 and was initially operated as a commercial enterprise, essentially a consulting firm, not an academic activity. An academic policy center, staffed with thinkers given the time to think deeply about the nation’s problems, is expensive, and requires large-scale and successful fundraising. A consulting firm can “live” on contracts that allow it to provide routine, but useful services to government agencies. In an era of government outsourcing, these routine funding opportunities are plentiful.

Over the years, the trustees have compiled a set of rules designed to insure that GW operates in a manner consistent with their conception of a university. This requires that at least 75 percent of the regular faculty of any school be tenured or tenure track, essentially permanent.

Unfortunately trustee rules can be ignored for long stretches if the administration doesn’t share the trustees’ objectives, as the board is not vigilant. Additionally, the last administration had an unusual preference for buildings that made the consulting-firm model appealing. As a result, SPHHS remained organized that way for a decade. The school was staffed with a “skeleton crew” of permanent faculty, approximately 40 percent of all regular faculty; and a much smaller share of research professors, whose incomes depend entirely on their abilities to secure contracts and grants, are included. During this first decade the Faculty Senate regularly lamented the failure of the administration to remedy this situation, but with little effect.

For whatever reason – change of administration, renewed interest from the Medical Center or from the trustees – Dean Reum has responded positively and aggressively to the latest Faculty Senate effort to remedy this situation, chaired by Professor Edward Cherian of the School of Business. The percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty has jumped from 40 to 60 percent in two years, and Reum has credibly committed the school to continue tenure/tenure-track hiring until that number reaches 75 percent in 2012. Soon a substantial fraction of the SPHHS regular faculty will be able to devote themselves to health care issues without concern that they need a project to guarantee reappointment or, in the case of research faculty, to feed their families tomorrow.

The school’s rapid transition from consulting firm to University unit is raising novel governance issues – how does a department that hires its first tenure-track faculty member implement a search? How does it mentor or implement tenure evaluations? For that matter, who should serve on the search committee for the next permanent dean? These are, in the end, small matters. To become a serious intellectual center is neither easy nor inexpensive, but the future of SPHHS has certainly brightened. The apparent collapse of efforts to reform the U.S. health care system suggests that deep policy reflections on health care cannot come too soon.

The writer is a professor of economics and a member of the Faculty Senate special committee on financial and operational planning for the Science and Engineering Complex.

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