The presidents of Old Dominion University, Norfolk State University and Eastern Virginia Medical School signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish the commonwealth's first School of Public Health during a joint meeting Thursday on the campus of ODU.
Signing the agreements took only a few minutes, but the action signified a moment of change for the future of Hampton Roads. The MOU solidifies a plan announced in January to develop a regional School of Public Health and address public health and health inequities in underserved communities.
The proposed joint School of Public Health has received widespread support from Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly, which fully funded a request of $5 million - $2.5 million each to ODU and NSU. With EVMS, the universities are now preparing to apply for accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH).
Before the formal signing, ODU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Austin Agho commended the presidents for arriving at this historic occasion.
"Leadership matters," he said. "We cannot do all that we want to do unless we have the right direction from the leaders of our respective institutions. Without their leadership, it would be impossible to make the progress that we have made."
ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., thanked the leadership of EVMS and NSU, along with government leaders and Sentara, for their work to bring this significant milestone to fruition.
"Today is truly a day of celebration on multiple levels," he said. "EVMS, NSU and ODU joining forces with a genuine sense of care for our community is so important.
"The work we have to do is not about any one individual. It is about the collective. As a community, with all of us coming together, we will be able to do dynamic work on behalf of our citizens with this School of Public Health."
President Hemphill said, upon learning about the region's serious health-care challenges, among them high rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and infant mortality, that he gained "a true understanding of the challenges we face here, and the importance of this work."
The School of Public Health will improve health outcomes in Hampton Roads, which has significant health disparities among urban areas in Virginia. Average life expectancies are markedly lower than state and national averages. The disparities are pronounced for underserved and underrepresented communities.
Sentara Healthcare invested $4 million in grants to ODU and NSU to support the accreditation process.
"We are excited these three schools are further demonstrating their commitment to a School of Public Health through this MOU. Sentara is proud to partner with and support them and is committed to improving the health of the communities we serve," said Jordan Asher, M.D., executive vice president and chief physician executive of Sentara Healthcare.
"Working together to address public health issues and health equity in our underserved communities is critical to driving lasting change for those who need it most. This School of Public Health will enable a more concentrated effort to do just that and serve as a catalyst for additional collaboration and positive health outcomes in the Hampton Roads region."
The process to pursue accreditation is shepherded by Bonnie Van Lunen, dean of the College of Health Sciences at ODU and interim dean of the School of Public Health. She applauded the institutions' staffs for working tirelessly to start the conversations about the school and meeting frequently to draft the agreement.
"I knew in those meetings that we actually had something good," she said, adding the collaborative approach is unique among the nation's public health schools.
Alfred Abuhamad, M.D., interim president, provost and dean of Eastern Virginia Medical School, noted the signing of the MOU was an important first step toward bettering the health of Hampton Roads residents.
"As a region, we can no longer ignore the health disparities that exist in our neighborhoods. Indeed, the health of our community should be measured by the health of the most vulnerable among us," he said. "Expanding our existing partnerships in offering high-level education in public health is an enormous step forward in broadening the impact we can have on Hampton Roads.
Under the MOU, ODU will serve as the lead institution, providing organizational, administrative and governance functions. The school will be housed on the ODU campus, but all institutions will collaborate as equals. Representatives from each institution will serve on an Institutional Operations Committee making decisions for the school. A curriculum committee with representatives from all three universities will define curricular components aligned with accreditation requirements. Together, the institutions will develop a "rules of the school" document entailing financial agreements, bylaws, governance and policies.
The School of Public Health will have three aims: educational, research and service. The school will educate future public health experts by offering collaborative Master of Public Health and doctoral programs, continuing education opportunities, contemporary teaching modalities and educational opportunities through partnerships.
The school will develop research addressing important regional, statewide, national and global public health challenges. Students will conduct community-based research focused on health disparities, determining the best ways to support preventative health-care messaging.
To serve the community, the school will create and enhance partnerships to address public health challenges, provide service-learning opportunities, promote faculty and staff involvement and support the region's public health workforce.
The school will have its own dean and will offer a Master of Public Health and Ph.D. in Health Services Research, in addition to future degrees to be determined by further collaboration among the partners. Each institution will have directors forming an executive council for the school. A search committee has been formed to hire the founding dean, who will guide the school through the accreditation process. The dean will be appointed by the ODU president.
The resulting school will build upon the history of public health leadership at each institution. ODU offers accredited undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs related to public health programming. NSU offers an accredited Master of Healthcare Administration program, while EVMS has two master's degree programs in health care administration and public health.
"Collectively, our institutions produce many health-care professionals who go on to work for hospital systems, health care and government agencies in the area and across the commonwealth," said NSU President Javaune Adams-Gaston, Ph.D. "The students who attend the ONE School of Public Health in partnership with Sentara Healthcare - a key ally and financial supporter - will not only gain the knowledge in public health fields, but they will also learn about cultural competency in public health and medicine that will allow them to promote wellness and encourage healthy behaviors amongst the people they treat and encounter. This will give the region a well-rounded and prepared workforce in the years to come.
"Our joint partnership shows the importance of regionalism, collaboration, and is a great example of how when we all work together, we can find solutions to address major problems that impact individuals on every level."
ODU produces the largest number of health sciences graduates in the region, as well as the greatest percentage who stay in Hampton Roads to provide health care. In addition, ODU graduates the second largest percentage of STEM-H professionals among Virginia's doctoral institutions. ODU also enrolls more African Americans than any other state-supported four-year institution in Virginia, which will contribute to diversifying the region's health workforce.