- Policy & Research
- About KHI
Oct. 11, 2010
TOPEKA After two years of discussion and development, a plan to create a School of Public Health at the University of Kansas is now before the Kansas Board of Regents for review.
If the plan meets approval and university officials can find about $2 million a year in additional funding, the goal is to have the new school accredited and functioning by 2013 or 2014.
"So far, I have every reason to be optimistic," that things will go according to plan, said Dr. Glen Cox, who has played a lead role crafting and advancing the proposal.
Cox is director of KU's Institute for Community and Public Health, the umbrella for several existing KU departments that would be folded into the new school, which would have faculty and students on KU campuses in Kansas City, Lawrence and Wichita.
There are more than 40 accredited schools of public health in the U.S. but relatively few are in the heartland or mountain west. Oklahoma has one. So does Missouri. Texas has three. Colorado and Nebraska each have a school, though neither is yet accredited.
Having one in Kansas, officials say, would mean more people trained for critical positions in the health sector, which is already plagued by workforce shortages that are expected to become acute as federal health reform is fully implemented in 2014 and as the baby boom generation retires.
"About 25 to 40 percent of the current public health workforce will be gone in five years due to retirement," Cox said. "And there's not been a lot of attention paid to replacing the public health workforce."
Among those trained in public health schools are epidemiologists, administrators, data and policy analysts and experts in environmental health and industrial hygiene.
The schools also train workers sought by private industry.
"Here in Kansas City and in Wichita there are a number of biomedical manufacturers, consulting firms and organizations that specialize in health care management and development," Cox said.
Demand for graduates, he predicted, would be high.
Student interest in public health careers already outpaces KU's capacity to train them.
"The MPH (master's in public health) program has a huge number of students in it and the sad thing right now is we are having to turn down applicants because of the limited number of faculty we've got," Cox said.
Most of the elements needed for a successful school are already in place at KU, Cox said.
The proposal before the Board of Regents calls for pulling four existing departments into the school.
But the school would need a dean and additional faculty. That would cost money, an estimated $2 million-$2.5 million more a year, Cox said.
Finding that extra money given current economic conditions could be difficult.
"I've taken a lot of flak from people asking, 'why are you talking about something that might demand additional resources from the state and university when all we've been talking about are cuts, major cuts,'" Cox said. "But if you don't have plans you can execute when the business cycle turns around, you're going to be left behind."
Cox said the goal would be to find "external," funding to hire a dean and more faculty.
Accredited schools of public health, he said, also have more opportunities to secure research grants.
How the plan morphed
The plan for the school was changed significantly over the course of its development.
The original idea was for the school to be a collaboration that would include departments or programs at Kansas State University and perhaps others in the state's public system.
But consultants advised against that, noting that a similar collaboration among public universities in Colorado had slowed the already slow process of putting together a school and gaining accreditation. It took Colorado a decade to get its school going.
"It was a very difficult decision on the part of the chancellor (Robert Hemenway, who has since retired) that KU was going to develop this proposal as the University of Kansas because one consideration way back was to develop this as a collaborative," Cox said.
KU officials decided the need for a school was urgent because of federal health reform and because the nation's top health concerns now center on public health issues such as obesity, smoking and violence.
"Now was the time to move forward," Cox said.
But Cox said KU is still eager to work with K-State, Wichita State University and others.
"To be honest," he said. "There was a good deal of concern when I had to go back to people at those institutions and inform them of the decision. While we still want collaboration, the shortest route is for the University of Kansas to take the intiaitive and move forward."
The decision was followed by months of ongoing discussions with interested parties at the other universities, he said.
"I think everybody now understands why the decision was made," he said. "It's in everybody's interest. K-State has a very robust undergraduate pipline and is developing a masters of public health (program) in Manhattan. I think that's great and actually we are helping in every way that we can to see that the program develops, including exchange of strategic information about how to pursue that."
Wichita State University, he said, "has a tremendous history of undergraduate programs in health careers."
Cox said program leaders at WSU have told him they also are interested in developing a master's of public health program.
"I've offered to do whatever I can," to help, he said.
Support from the top
Assuming there is support for the KU plan (or at least no major opposition to it) from the other state universities and that the Regents agree to it, there is still the question of final approval from KU leaders and the ability to raise the needed money.
Cox said Dr. Barbara Atkinson, KU executive vice chancellor and dean of the medical school, has been supportive of the plan from the start and has been among those pushing for the new school.
KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little also has signaled her backing, he said.
"To develop a school, it has to be a university priority," he said. "And so Dr. Gray-Little and Dr. Atkinson have to be behind this and have to give that final approval. They are continuing to tell me that we need to move this forward. Dr. Gray-Little comes from North Carolina, a state with a very robust public health system and very robust health care research programs and I think was actually somewhat surprised when she came to the University of Kansas that there was not already a school of public health in place."
The University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health has a 70-year history. It is consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation.
When Gray-Little left the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2009, she was its executive vice chancellor and provost.
The plan for the new school still has several steps of review at the Board of Regents.
The board's Council of Academic Officers will have a second reading of the proposal later this month.
If they sign off on it, the plan then goes before from the board's Council of Presidents, a panel of the top executives from the state's public universities.
Approval from the presidents could put the plan before the Regents as early as December, said Kip Peterson, a Regents spokesman.