What does it mean to lead a school of public health?
October 15, 2017
Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH
Dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor of health behavior
Chair, President’s Cancer Panel
Leadership is an essential element of a consistently high-performing school of public health, which the Gillings School is. Leadership reaches for the stars with one’s feet firmly planted on the ground. It requires being brutally honest about one’s own strengths and limitations and those of the organization one leads.
A vision for the future helps a leader obtain needed resources and develop teams to solve today’s problems while extending our reach beyond what we can grasp at present. We exist in those multiple worlds.
Leadership is more demanding than ever before, and that is especially true in a public university. We embrace the public nature of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Gillings School. We are, as our Chancellor’s Blueprint for Next articulates, of the people and for the people. We are focused on what is good for North Carolina even as we look beyond to the nation and the world. We are rooted in the soil of the state, feel the pain and potential of its people, seek to solve problems within the state and recognize, as Edward Kidder Graham said in his inaugural speech as president of the University, that the boundaries of the university are coterminous with the state.
That allows us to see the world through the lens of the state. Being a public university today means that we must navigate the current political climate. I write in my blog (mondaymorning.web.unc.edu) about issues such as the appropriateness of a monument to the Confederacy on the campus of a university that seeks diversity and inclusion – but to assure that my voice has meaning and impact, I must choose a finite number of topics about which to speak.
Leadership requires attention to the everyday – managing budgets, hiring, dealing with myriad requests from across the School, University and beyond, hiring, sometimes disciplining, and in general, showing up when a leader’s presence is required and needed. Of course, no leader can and should do all those things alone. In our School, we have strong leadership teams, and I have great admiration and respect for members of those teams. Within the University, as the dean of the Gillings School, I am both a tireless advocate for the School and someone who must consider what is good for the larger University.
Vision, innovation, a clear view of what the future could be (and then developing the strategy to get there) – those are the truly exciting and transformational aspects of leadership and legacy. When we received the Gillings gift and were among the first schools of public health to develop innovation centers within the School – Gillings Innovation Laboratories – it gave us the means to take risks, invest intentionally in areas important for the future and encourage an even higher level of interdisciplinary collaboration, without boundaries. We say that UNC-Chapel Hill is a place of low stone walls, but resources help to keep those walls low. Vision and innovation apply to our research, service and academic programs but also to how we are organized to do our work.
Leadership requires guiding change by providing a compelling rationale and vision and being “all in” each step of the way. I am excited by changes we are making in our academic programs, the move to Gillings One MPH and the redesign of our Master of Public Health degree programs with a new, integrated approach to core courses. It requires careful, painstaking effort to bring our community along, to seek input, listen and adapt, and work hand-in-hand with department chairs and other leaders. We’ve adapted our governance model to give leaders within the Gillings School more authority for decision making regarding the MPH program. We believe the changes will result in even higher quality and consistency, with more opportunity for educational innovation. We aim to meet the needs of 21st-century students and employers, to address critical issues in public health and to prepare students for the century’s great challenges.
Change is a necessary part of life. We cannot stay the same if we intend to remain a top school of public health.
Good performance metrics are essential to leadership because they tell us how we are doing. We also use metrics to educate our faculty, staff, students, board members and others. Metrics allow us to be grounded in the reality of our own performance.
Leadership also means striving continually to create and sustain a School that is open, diverse, inclusive and caring – a place that is built upon a culture of health, one that encourages the health and growth of every person within it. While we are limited in many ways by constraints of the state system and by years of budget cuts, every person associated with us should feel valued.
Life happens along the way, and many people carry heavy burdens. While helping people navigate those challenges, we seek to create an environment permeated by joy, discovery, celebration, wonder, growth and collegiality.
Leadership means being a role model. People look to the behavior of leaders as setting standards for what is acceptable and aspirational.
Leadership requires investing in one’s intellectual bank – learning new things, being aware of what is being done elsewhere, reading widely, getting excited about ideas, listening deeply to people, including our faculty, staff and students, questioning oneself and finding moments in which to renew. It requires resilience, because sometimes we must accept and recover from difficult situations. Gratitude, too, should be part of leadership.
It’s never done and always new.
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 sph.unc.edu/cph.