Public service, engagement and engaged scholarship —
Ways of life at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH

Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH

Public universities like ours are expected to give back to their states and regions. I cannot imagine a School that more clearly personifies engagement and public service than the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. As much as teaching and research, our efforts to improve the public’s health through public service and engagement are central elements of what we do — from fighting obesity, to overcoming health disparities, to measuring pollutants in air and water, to tracking sources of infectious diseases, to preparing for and responding to disasters.

In the academic world, where the sum of research grants and the volume of publications in scholarly journals are well-known measures of professional success, “service” often gets too little recognition and appreciation. We have focused the spring issue of Carolina Public Health on our engagement, engaged scholarship and public service, not only to pay respect to this work, but also to explore its many facets. The word service alone fails to convey the sense of reciprocity that is regarded as an important ingredient in the process, literally, the active ingredient.

Our work is in line with the effort, led by UNC President Erskine Bowles, called “UNC Tomorrow,” which examines how all the colleges and universities within the UNC system can help identify and respond to the most pressing needs that will face our state over the next 20 years. President Bowles articulates a strong connection between the UNC system and engagement with the state of North Carolina.

“(We must) serve and elevate our region, state and beyond. Our guiding principle calls us to aspire globally while serving locally.”

-Chancellor Holden Thorp, Installation Address, Oct. 12, 2008

In December 2006, UNC was recognized as a community-engaged university, one of 62 institutions in the country that met specified requirements. This classification recognizes Carolina’s ongoing collaborations with communities and our commitment to foster community service among students, faculty and staff. A few years ago, the School of Public Health went through its own process to be recognized as an engaged institution in conjunction with the Kellogg Foundation, and we developed a plan for engagement (PDF). Service and engagement are part of our mission: to improve public health, promote individual well-being, and eliminate health disparities across North Carolina and around the world.

In our School, public service and engagement are required for promotion. For example, they are important considerations in promotion to the associate and full professor levels, along with excellence in research and high-quality teaching.

Each year, members of our faculty, staff and student body contribute thousands of hours of public service to their departments, school and university; local, state and federal governments; community organizations and voluntary health organizations; and to a range of causes across North Carolina and around the world.

Whether creating healthy eating tips for the School’s Atrium Café, conducting service projects in conjunction with the Ronald McDonald House (for which our students were awarded a Seagraves Service Grant for Student Organizations), being part of Team Epi-Aid to help with disaster relief, or taking the lead on any number of other projects, this School is committed to public service and engagement.

Our North Carolina Institute for Public Health organizes and provides thousands of continuing education hours each year to aid North Carolina’s public health workforce to enhance their knowledge and skills in critical areas. Bill Gentry, lecturer and director of certificate programs in health policy and management, played a lifesaving role for many homeless animals in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Bob Millikan, PhD, DVM, Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor of epidemiology, for many years has volunteered as an instructor with the National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund’s Project LEAD, which teaches research principles to breast cancer advocates. These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg. There is no department in the School that does not have a proud track record of public service and engagement.

There also are many examples of engaged scholarship. Geni Eng, DrPH, professor of health behavior and health education; Steve Wing, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology; and Alice Ammerman, DrPH, nutrition professor and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, are examples of faculty members whose research involves communities active in helping formulate research questions, implementing research and interpreting results.

As the economy rebounds, I hope we can provide more awards to honor our faculty, staff and students for public service, engagement and engaged scholarship. I would like to do so much more than thank them for their efforts; I would like to honor them as well! For now, this special issue is a first step in recognizing their efforts — and giving them the respect that is so well deserved.


Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit