Open for Business: UT Establishes Department of Public Health

 

KNOXVILLE — After several years of planning combined with “a very serious and purposeful reallocation of internal resources,” the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has established a Department of Public Health within the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.

The UT Board of Trustees approved the creation of the new department in June, and the Department of Public Health came into being on July 1.

“This is an interim step toward our ultimate goal: establishing a School of Public Health,” said Dr. Paul Erwin, head of the new department and director of UT’s Center for Public Health. Erwin is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and public health and preventive medicine and also has a master’s degree and doctorate in public health. Prior to coming to UT in 2007, he worked with the Tennessee Department of Health for 16 years, the last 12 years of those as director of the East Tennessee Regional Health Office.

UT Knoxville has offered programs in public health since 1969, the year the program received national accreditation for the Master of Public Health program.

The programs had been housed in various departments, most recently in the Department of Nutrition, which is also a part of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences.

During the past two years, administrators laid the groundwork for the Department of Public Health by eliminating the master’s program in safety and reallocating its faculty to public health. Some vacant faculty lines also were filled. By doing this, the public health staff was expanded from five to nine faculty members plus a post-doctoral instructor without any new resources. Erwin credits the hard work of Jay Whelan, department head in nutrition, and the support from Bob Rider, dean of the college, as the critical elements in getting to department status.

The Department of Public Health offers a doctoral program in health behavior and health education; a master of public health degree with concentrations in community health education, veterinary public health and health planning and administration; and a dual-degree program in which students earn master’s degrees in nutrition and public health. The department will maintain a single undergraduate course (Introduction to Public Health), but will otherwise have no undergraduate programs.

The Department of Public Health administration offices and the Center for Public Health are now located in 390 Health and Physical Education Building (HPER), the building where students attend public health classes.

Students this fall will notice a strengthening of public health academic programs, Erwin said. The master’s program will include a new required course in program evaluation. The doctoral program is being completely retooled. There also will be an increasing number of opportunities for service learning so students can put their classroom learning to work with numerous community partners, including the Knox County Health Department, Cherokee Health Systems, the East Tennessee Regional Health Department and other area agencies.

Erwin said the creation of a Department of Public Health allows for greater opportunities for sharing faculty appointments with other departments and allows the departmental focus to be completely devoted to the core academic disciplines within public health.

“Faculty will be more motivated to pursue research opportunities and up the bar on the quality of their teaching,” he said. “The atmosphere, the morale, the attitude of faculty and staff are tremendously supportive, optimistic and forward-looking.

“The onus is on us; it’s time for us to show how we matter and why.”

Now that the Department of Public Health exists, there may be some changes to the mission of the Center for Public Health. Created in September 2007, the center is guided by a board of the deans from the Colleges of Nursing, Social Work, Veterinary Medicine, and Education, Health and Human Sciences; the Graduate School of Medicine; and University Extension. The center’s purpose has been to expand the public health academic program, to create collaborative, public health-related teaching and research opportunities across campus, and to develop a strategic plan for establishing a School of Public Health at UT Knoxville.

The strategic plan, Erwin said, calls for UT to have a School of Public Health within five years.

To meet accreditation standards, a School of Public Health would need 25 faculty members, three doctoral programs and master’s programs in all five core public health disciplines: epidemiology, biostatistics, health behavior, health planning and administration, and environmental health.

“Going from where we were to a Department of Public Health took a very serious and purposeful reallocation of internal resources. We will not be able to go to a full School of Public Health without significant new recurring resources,” Erwin said.

Erwin said the college will look to private funding, institutional funding and external research grants to help fund the growth.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu)

Paul Campbell Erwin, (865-974-5252, perwin@utk.edu)

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