Dr. Neil J. MacKinnon, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Augusta University, held a town hall meeting this week for impacted faculty and staff regarding the new School of Public Health.
“When we think about the topic of public health, it’s interesting because it kind of struck me as odd when I first interviewed here at Augusta University that we are Georgia’s only public academic health center and we don’t have a school or college of public health,” MacKinnon said during the June 1 town hall meeting. “We know that other universities in our system that aren’t Georgia’s only public academic health center have a school or college of public health.”
MacKinnon, who himself is a former director of the Center for Rural Health and faculty member at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, said he approached Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel, PhD, about creating a new school of public health.
“Certainly, you have, in me, a provost who loves public health and who is passionate about it,” MacKinnon said. “And, especially after the COVID pandemic, there’s no one in this country who has not been impacted by public health.”Just last month, Keel officially announced the creation of the School of Public Health, which he said will be a crucial tool in helping promote population health in today’s rapidly changing environment.
“As the state’s only public academic health center, it is our responsibility and our privilege to help ensure the health of Georgia’s citizens and communities,” Keel said. “At Augusta University’s new School of Public Health, students will be offered a comprehensive educational experience designed to prepare leaders who understand the important role of public health in today’s society.
“Within this new school, students will be equipped with critical-thinking, problem-solving and information-management skills that will improve health care delivery and promote public health across this nation.”
Augusta University will launch a national search for a founding dean of the new School of Public Health with the target date of the new school to begin in July 2023.
MacKinnon said the new School of Public Health will better focus all of the university’s current efforts into a united goal.
Augusta University is already home to the Institute of Public and Preventive Health, the Center for Rural Health and the statewide Area Health Education Centers. The College of Allied Health Sciences offers a Master of Public Health degree and PhD in Applied Health Sciences, while the Medical College of Georgia’s Department of Population Health Sciences houses multiple graduate programs and the College of Education offers a health promotion undergraduate program.
“As I look around the room, I know the good work that you’re already doing,” MacKinnon said during the town hall meeting. “We have so many faculty and staff doing amazing things related to public health of which we should be very proud. So, the thought behind the creation of this new school was, how do we build upon this? How can we potentially take this to the next level?”
MacKinnon reached out to his former dean at the University of Arizona, Dr. Iman Hakim, for guidance on how to create the new School of Public Health at Augusta University.
“Dr. Hakim is the longest-serving dean at the University of Arizona, and by good fortune, she has just rolled off the national accreditation board for public health education, where she served two terms,” MacKinnon said. “Fortunately, she was open and willing to help us.”
Hakim researched Augusta University, visited the campus and reviewed its public health programs and provided the university a detailed report about her findings that MacKinnon shared with Keel, the president’s cabinet and, most recently, the impacted faculty and staff.“She was very thoughtful and thorough in her report,” MacKinnon said. “She told us what we need to watch for and what are the next steps in developing this new school.”
Augusta University will soon be notifying the national accreditation body for public health education of the university’s intention to create the new school.
“So, what are the potential benefits? Why would we even consider this? After all, it’s a big move creating a new school or college. Universities don’t do that very often because it takes a lot of work and energy. It also causes disruptions,” MacKinnon said.
“So, what are the benefits? Clearly, I think it further solidifies our role as the state’s only designated public academic health center. But I think it will also bring together public health faculty across the university. We have about 60 faculty and staff that will be part of this new school that are doing work in this area. So, I think there is something to be said about bringing folks together that have a common interest and a common passion.”
The new School of Public Health will be located on the Summerville Campus in Science Hall. Therefore, all the faculty and staff will be working together in a united location, MacKinnon said.
“We can build and create new synergies based on that,” MacKinnon said, adding that the creation of this new school also has the potential of attracting more students to Augusta University, which will help meet Keel’s goal of having 16,000 students at Augusta University by 2030. “Are there students who maybe don’t know about our programs, but if we had a school or a college in public health, would they be more interested in coming to Augusta University? Could we build upon this? Can we hire more faculty and staff?”
These are all the positive possibilities related to the creation of the School of Public Health at Augusta University, MacKinnon said.
In addition, Augusta University recently welcomed Dr. Marc Austin as the inaugural associate provost and dean of Augusta University Online. Austin will guide Augusta University’s evolving online education and learning strategy, leveraging existing institutional strengths and identifying new opportunities to position Augusta University Online for long-term success, MacKinnon said.
“Dr. Marc Austin is particularly interested in public health,” MacKinnon said. “We’ve had some initial conversations and he believes there’s a lot of potential there for growth. And over the next year or so as we start to roll out Augusta University Online, there will be additional support for students, but also additional support for faculty who are teaching online.”
MacKinnon believes the new School of Public Health will also promote additional research opportunities throughout the university.
“We’re coming off a record year of research funding. We’ve had a lot of success,” MacKinnon said. “But, certainly, some of you might be aware that there are some grants that if you don’t have a school or college behind you, then you’re not eligible for those grants. I believe by creating the new school we will be eligible to receive more federal funding. I think the CDC and other agencies will look at us a little differently if we are a school or college. So again, for me, that’s also another selling point.”While creating a new school that requires changes and adjustments for faculty and staff can be challenging, MacKinnon said it is also an exciting opportunity.
“It’s exciting, but it still is challenging and I think it’s good to acknowledge that upfront,” MacKinnon said. “But I am here to support you. And I’m confident in our support teams. We want this to succeed. We want to pull this off. We want to have a really strong school and we know we can achieve that goal.”
The creation of the new School of Public Health is such a unique opportunity, and MacKinnon said he hopes the entire university embraces the challenge.
“What an opportunity to be the founding faculty and staff of this new school,” MacKinnon said during the town hall meeting. “That opportunity does not come along very often. It gives you the opportunity to really shape this new school.”
In five years, MacKinnon said the university and the surrounding community will be talking about the tremendous addition of the new School of Public Health at Augusta University.
“When people are talking about the School of Public Health, they are going be talking about the good work that you’re doing,” MacKinnon said to audience members during the town hall meeting.
“What are those conversations going to be like? What new degrees and what new concentrations are ahead? Just imagine five years from now. We will have students crossing the stage at commencement and the banner right behind them will be the School of Public Health. So, this is a special moment and that’s something I don’t take for granted. I think we have an incredible opportunity here and a fantastic faculty and staff. I’m ready to get started.”