Once overlooked, public health school becomes biggest success story

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Sam Hardgrove

The School of Public Health and Health Services will move into its new home, which cost $75 million, this month.

The $80 million worth of donations to the public health school this week set records, jolted fundraising and far exceeded even the dean’s expectations.

“If you had asked me what my goal was for fundraising in 2010, I would never have been so audacious to say we’re going to raise $80 million within my first few years here,” said dean Lynn Goldman, who was recruited away from Johns Hopkins University four years ago.

But the public health’s school rise from one of the University’s smallest and newest schools to a research powerhouse has involved much more than bagging big gifts. With its focus on tying together different academic fields and bursts of research productivity, the college has turned itself into one of GW’s biggest success stories.

It was once one of the most underfunded colleges at GW with few heavy-hitting researchers. But the public health school has nearly doubled its full-time faculty core over nine years and seen its ranking rise to No. 16 in the country.

With about 1,000 graduate students and 180 undergraduates, the college is now making more than double the money it did a decade ago from tuition and research grants.

On top of that, the college will move into its first permanent home this week – a $75 million glass building on Washington Circle full of interdisciplinary space. Inside, the college will double down on research areas like healthcare reform, obesity and sanitation.

“Honest to God, this will kind of be a revolution for our school,” Goldman said of the building, which features more classrooms with updated technology, offices for faculty and staff and study space for students.

Creating an identity
Before it could get close to a revolution, the school had to overcome its own history.

Public health split off from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences in 1997, with the health policy department driving most research activity. As departments were added, public health dealt with the growing pains of being a new school, like adding faculty and prioritizing research.

For years, the Faculty Senate criticized the school for failing to have nearly enough tenure-track professors, hamstrung by lack of funding and a thin reputation for recruiting.

The school also had more lenient tenure policies, Sara Rosenbaum, a professor for over 20 years and former chair of the health policy department said.

“The people who might have been tenured 15 years ago here couldn’t possibly get tenure today. Because they may have been very good at what they did and very good teachers, but they didn’t have this huge research presence,” she said.

The school also relied almost solely on tuition money to pay faculty salaries and run the school, because the little emphasis put on research meant most faculty did not bring in revenue from grants.

Spread across Foggy Bottom from Ross Hall to in leased buildings in K Street and M Street, faculty in different departments sometimes don’t know each other or how they could work collaboratively on research or in teaching classes. “I cannot tell you what the scrambling is like when we have to hold a meeting,” Rosenbaum said.

Richard Southby, a former dean and member of the school’s formation committee, said the school had tried to become more cohesive but was lower on the University’s list of priorities a decade ago.

“We had talked about it and we had definitely made it very clear that our aspiration was to have our own building, but at that stage I don’t think we were very high on the priority list for a new physical facility,” he said.

In 2006 – nine years after the school’s formation – the Faculty Senate tapped public health as the second-highest GW priority for new facilities.


A true separation
The school also was a part of the University’s Medical Center until 2011, sharing resources with the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. During that time, the school was without its own development, research or public relations offices. It also did not control its own budget.

Goldman said the shared resources made it hard to distinguish the schools from each other and even sent mixed messages about public health and medical research.

“The things they would do, how our website looked, how our materials looked, looked very much like medicine. People with white coats and stethoscopes around their necks, which is not what we do. We’re about population health,” she said.

In her first year as dean, Goldman led the school through the reorganization of the medical center, which gave the school authority over its spending and offices for the first time.

Since then, the school has launched its own development and public affairs offices and hired more research, student and career services support staff members.

Now, major gifts to the school have more than doubled as the school also refashioned its promotional videos to emphasize public health, rather than physical medicine.

A 22 percent increase in enrollment in the past five years has also filled the public health school’s coffers, and an online program launched last year could buoy enrollment even more. Goldman said she would also be looking to hire new faculty as part of the grants as early as this year, after hiring more than 40 professors in her tenure.

Since the separation, the school has been financially independent – not part of the University’s unified budget model. Unlike other colleges like the business school or Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, which get money divvied up from the University, the public health school is on its own.

“We’re like grown ups and have to pay all the bills ourselves,” Goldman said.
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That way, the college has avoided some of the budget fights that has caused tension between the central administration and dean’s offices in recent years, like the business school’s $13 million worth of overspending last year.

“I would say, not to in any way denigrate the University, but I think one of the reasons why we’ve been a success is that the University has not had to treat us as a major burden on the budget,” Rosenbaum said.

Becoming a research engine
The school has also shed its view of itself as a primarily teaching institution, expanding its research portfolio across departments and demanding more from faculty members.

Goldman, who previously taught at top-ranked Johns Hopkins University, has required professors to bring in more of their own salaries through research. She said faculty are currently bringing in about one-quarter of their salaries through research, but she’d like it it to be closer to one-half.

To propel that research, tenure-track professors have had lighter teaching loads. Between 2006 and 2012, average teaching load declined from 7.6 course hours to 5.5.

Administrators now see the Washington Circle building as a new catalyst for research, but it hasn’t been without hiccups.

Despite the donation from the Milken Institute, which is going toward programs and fellowships, the school had struggled to bring in the fundraising it needed to reach its goal for the building, raising just 14 percent of the donations it needs.

Still, University President Steven Knapp said the money did not need to go toward construction “because we already figured out how to pay for that building” through a combination of debt and government research subsidies.

Other officials were also confident its location on Washington Circle would help bring in money after the building was finished. Alan Greenberg, chair of the epidemiology department, said its location would help draw in the rest of the funds for the building and help the school develop its own name among public health schools.

“In our profession, once you have a building it establishes you as a brick and mortar school of public health and the location right on Pennsylvania Avenue is a visible one,” Greenberg said.

Striking a balance
At Johns Hopkins, Goldman brought in 80 percent of her own salary through research revenue – a number she said might be too high for at GW, but that the school’s faculty could strive for.

Public health faculty typically bring in about 20 percent of their salary through research, Goldman said. Ideally, she’d like that number to be at 50 or 60 percent.

That’s still much more research revenue for the school than 20 years ago, Rosenbaum said. Research support for the school’s faculty increased in the 90s, she said, but has surged even more since the college developed its own research office under Goldman.

“Today, we have no problem competing for any award. We have incredibly complex projects with millions of dollars in funds flowing and many research sites and research partnerships with other universities or institutions, and a tremendous amount of effort has been put into recruiting faculty that are adept at that,” Rosenbaum said.

As faculty who used to spend 100 percent of their time teaching have retired, the school has been able to bring in more new faculty for each open line because those professors bring in more of their salaries. Goldman has hired 40 new faculty members since arriving at GW.

By increasing the time for faculty to research, public health tenure track faculty have decreased their course hours from 7.6 hours a semester to 5.5 hours on average between 2006 and 2012.

Public health faculty’s research areas range from HIV/AIDS to environmental health and the impacts of the Affordable Care Act. That range has helped the school increase its research revenue from $10 million in 2007 to $40 million.

Goldman said she works with faculty, especially newer hires, to make sure they are comfortable balancing their research and teaching duties. During their first few years at the University, they work with officials to prepare to ramp up their research profiles.

National funding for research has decreased over the last several years, and so younger faculty have sometimes struggled to start up research enterprises.

“I’m very sympathetic to faculty because it’s kind of like worse than being a farmer. Predicting NIH is worse than predicting the weather,” Goldman said.

But GW has had more success than many other schools, and research expenditures have increased across the University, with public health as one of GW’s biggest drivers – part of the reason administrators point to the school as a rising star.

“The University may have kickstarted it a bit, but now I would say we are an engine that throws off money back to the University,” Rosenbaum said.

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