June 30, 2020
William A. Sollecito, DrPH, will retire at the end of June after 23 years of service on the faculty of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Through his tireless work to innovate in distance learning, train public health leaders and ensure quality services in health departments, he has embodied the spirit of public health and prepared many leaders in the field for the challenges they face today. Though Sollecito has been associated with UNC-Chapel Hill for 40 years, his identity as a Tar Heel runs even deeper.
Sollecito earned a Doctor of Public Health degree in biostatistics from the University of North Carolina in 1982. When multinational contract research organization Quintiles (now IQVIA) was founded in North Carolina that same year, he was hired as one of its first employees — an honor he likes to describe in basketball terms as being one of the “starting five.” He marks much of his career history with references to UNC basketball, in fact, and he’s quick to set personal accomplishments aside to note that 1982 was “the same year Dean Smith won his first NCAA championship.”
Though he studied business statistics at Baruch College, Sollecito was looking for ways to help those around him and found a deeper interest in applying his statistical knowledge to health care and public health. About this budding interest, he says: “Many of us in the late ’60s were looking for ways to channel our energies to benefit others. Our protests were important — but actions were what we needed most. Dedicating my life to public health and health care was the most direct action that I could take.”
Sollecito began his career in health services research as a statistician for the New York City Department of Health. After earning a master’s degree in biostatistics from the University of Pittsburgh, he worked for the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York. During this time, he benefited from transformative mentorship by Harry Smith, PhD, whom he says received the first doctoral degree that UNC awarded in biostatistics. Smith and Stan Lemeshow, PhD, another biostatistics department alumnus who later became dean of the Ohio State School of Public Health, both encouraged Sollecito to go to UNC, which he notes was “recognized as the best biostatistics department in the world.” This experience with mentorship would inspire him, upon becoming a faculty member, to “share the leadership knowledge and skills” he learned at Quintiles.
Sollecito became an adjunct professor in the UNC School of Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Administration in 1983, while working at Quintiles. During this time, his career progressed quickly, taking him from biostatistical director to president of Quintiles Americas. After reading the book “The Future of Public Health” and reflecting on the value of his own mentors, Sollecito saw a clearly defined need to improve leadership skills in public health and sought to leverage his extensive industry leadership experience to help the public health practitioners who enrolled in the Gillings School.
“I grew along with Quintiles,” he says. “I also grew as an academic along with the growth path of the Public Health Leadership Program, which started officially in 1997 — the same year that I returned to the School. My career success is definitely the result of having great mentors: first Drs. [Dennis] Gillings and [Gary] Koch, and then — as a faculty member at UNC — Dr. Arnold Kaluzny. So, I wanted to do the same for others. This was my way of giving back to our School, the place where Quintiles was founded.”
In addition to sharing his talents, Sollecito has provided generous support to many programs and departments at UNC and Gillings School over the years.
He advanced to director of UNC’s Public Health Leadership Program while serving as graduate studies director and, later, professor. During this time, he also served as a research professor in the School’s Department of Health Policy and Administration. He acted as co-director of the Academic Career Leadership Academy in Medicine for the UNC School of Medicine, and he administered online certificate programs for the Public Health Leadership Program — an experience that would equip him uniquely for current challenges.
A disposition toward leadership and innovation prepared Sollecito better than most to surmount the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. He has long been dedicated to developing and teaching online courses, and he drew on this experience to respond to the rapidly changing demands of teaching during a pandemic. Along with other faculty members in the Public Health Leadership Program, he saw helping students continue their education safely as a primary charge and worked to guide them through the transition. Reflecting on the experience, he says, “I am especially proud of my fellow faculty and staff — and, most of all, our students — who overcame the challenges of COVID-19 to continue pursuing their passion to help others.”
Sollecito sees this experience as transformative and says it has shaped his thoughts on the future of public health.
“As a strong proponent of distance education, I think the way we teach in public health will be permanently changed and somewhat improved by the current emphasis on using innovation and technology to reach more students and more communities,” he says. “We must be open to receiving feedback and to improving continuously — not only in education but also in providing care — e.g., through greater use of telemedicine and greater efficiency in the workplace via the use of ZOOM and similar platforms.”
Sollecito’s teaching experience includes courses in team leadership, research navigation, leadership in biostatistics, and quality improvement and leadership. In addition to teaching graduate courses and giving frequent invited lectures, he has published extensively on team and organizational leadership, project management and continuous quality improvement. While in the contract research industry, he conducted or administrated numerous drug development programs that led to Federal Drug and Administration approval for new medicines.
As a member of the North Carolina Local Health Department Accreditation Board, he fostered continuous improvements in local health agencies across the state, and he served on the Board of Directors of the Quintiles Transnational Corporation and the Board of Water Partners International (now Water.org), a nonprofit organization founded by Gillings alumnus Gary White, MS. Sollecito is a 2002 Legacy Laureate of the University of Pittsburgh; in 2005, he received the Hubert H. Humprey Fellowship Program Award for Excellence in Teaching; and, in 2016, he was inducted into the Delta Omega Honorary Society in Public Health.
“At a pivotal time in the School’s history, Bill led the Public Health Leadership Program,” says Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Gillings School. “He was a wise leader who attracted excellent faculty and staff and always modeled quality. He was and continues to be an important voice for practice and is exemplar in his scholarship. He was a valuable member of our Chairs’ Committee and Dean’s Council, where he was always a strong, positive and generous force.”
Responding to a question about what has inspired him throughout his career, Sollecito says:
“I continue to be inspired by the willingness of people in public health and health care to work tirelessly, often with limited resources, to help others and to share knowledge through teamwork and leadership at all levels. This has been central to our ability to overcome challenges and has been demonstrated in the face of many natural disasters as well as in meeting the everyday needs of our communities — most recently, with the response to COVID-19. Most importantly, I am inspired by a common element that is central to public health: a focus on social justice and efforts to achieve the highest levels of care for all people. I have always found inspiration from the first principle that I learned in public health many years ago — the fact that the field is, by definition, made up of diverse teams of people with different skills, cultures and backgrounds all working together, sharing knowledge and helping each other to find the best solutions for all. This approach makes it clear that we in public health must take the lead of fighting for equal rights and protections for everyone — a task that begins with ensuring adequate health care but goes beyond that basic obligation to include ensuring dignity for all.”
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.