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Sten Vermund’s tenure as dean of YSPH marked by historic gains…and COVID-19

July 12, 2022
by Colin Poitras

Dr. Sten Vermund’s time as dean of the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) will forever be associated with COVID-19. After all, nearly half of his term from February 2017 to July 2022 was dominated by the devastating global pandemic, which dramatically changed the world and how YSPH operates. While Vermund may be remembered for how he navigated the school through the most significant global health crisis in decades — the sudden transition to virtual learning, COVID tracking and surveillance, local and global guidance from faculty experts, and steep fluctuations in enrollment — there is much more to his legacy as a leader of one of the nation’s top public health schools.

During Vermund’s time as dean, YSPH experienced its largest jump in the national rankings put out by the U.S. News & World Report in more than a decade. The school now ranks at number 11, its highest ranking ever. Vermund also established the school’s first Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, led by Associate Dean Mayur Desai. In a reflection of their personal commitment to DEIB, Vermund and his wife, Dr. Pilar Vargas, created an endowed fund exclusively dedicated to the school’s DEIB efforts. The gift was one of several private donations quietly made by Vargas and Vermund during his tenure as dean.

Growing the school’s endowment was a top priority when Vermund began his leadership role, and he steps down from the job having garnered unprecedented development funds, over $70 million in the past three years alone. One of the most significant highlights of Vermund’s term was his success in revamping and greatly expanding the school’s Office of Public Health Practice, providing students plenty of guidance and internship opportunities to hone their public health skills and improve their prospects for future jobs. The office, alongside unprecedented engagement by Vermund and a host of YSPH faculty, has increased the school’s interactions with state, local, and community partners to historic levels of intensity. Perhaps as a consequence of his statewide partnerships, Vermund was elected recently as vice-president/president-elect of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

In February 2022, in the most historic moment for the school under Vermund’s leadership, Yale President Peter Salovey, Provost Scott Strobel, and School of Medicine (YSM) Dean Nancy Brown announced that YSPH would be transitioning to a self-supporting independent graduate school after decades of operating as a department under YSM. Concurrent with that announcement, university leaders pledged $150 million of endowment support for YSPH’s teaching, research, and practice missions, to complement an additional $50 million to be raised by YSPH on its own.

The next dean of the Yale School of Public Health will have much work to do as the school enters this new and historic stage. Associate Dean of Research Melinda Irwin (another new post created by Vermund) heads a search advisory committee on behalf of President Salovey to identify outstanding candidates for the position of dean. In the meantime, YSPH Deputy Dean Melinda Pettigrew began her term as interim dean on July 1, with Professor Linda Niccolai commencing her work as the school’s new associate dean for academic affairs that same day.

It is within this context that Vermund, MD, PhD, Yale’s Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health and a professor of pediatrics, recently sat down to discuss his time as dean, his accomplishments, his challenges, and his vision for the school moving forward. The following are excerpts from that conversation, which has been edited for length.

What were some of your proudest achievements as dean?

When I arrived, the school was very strong in research, but it was under-capacitated in public health practice. Building and expanding the Office of Public Health Practice has really helped us engage with the community and meet our student demands. We’re also doing better with alumni outreach, services to alumni, and fundraising through motivated donors who are deeply supportive of our public health mission. Our newly recruited faculty are an immensely talented group. The assistant professors and senior faculty who have come to the school are absolutely top-notch so the future of the school glows brightly. I think the fact that we improved teaching quality and have been a magnet for students with rising student demand and yield is a plus. The service and science leadership that the faculty have demonstrated over the years was made especially obvious during COVID-19. We have new policies and procedures that have been codified and we’ve had a balanced budget two out of the past four years, which represents progress. It also was gratifying to partner with the Schools of Medicine and Nursing to create the Yale Institute for Global Health, which has been hugely successful under Dr. Saad Omer’s directorship. Our hybrid Executive MPH adds diversity and experience to our student body and is also going exceedingly well in its second year.

So much has happened in the world of public health during your tenure as dean. What were some of the most difficult challenges you faced during this tumultuous time?

Externally, countering anti-science forces through more effective education of both lay audiences and policymakers looms large as among the most difficult challenges. Internally, our greatest school challenges have been anchored in our fiscal insecurities.

What major challenges do you see public health facing in the next five years?

Climate change and pollution loom large as existential threats to the planet. Our climate change crisis must be resolved, or we will turn over the planet in a severely degraded state to our grandchildren. The amount of human misery that will be spawned by health challenges related to climate change is hard to fathom, but it is likely to be worse than we imagine. Filling our air, land, and oceans with pollutants and plastics represents a related crisis. Nutrition and sedentary lifestyles fuel growth of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, among other illnesses. Many low- to middle-income countries are now experiencing a fast food-fueled and sedentary lifestyle-fueled obesity problem where undernutrition used to be the norm. Special populations need special attention and care, encompassing maternal and child health, the aging global population, LGBTQ populations, refugees, and other vulnerable groups.

Prevention of the swathe of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including mental health and substance use, must be addressed to maximize healthy aging. Yes, we still have infectious disease challenges but the biggest killers even in many developing countries are now NCDs. Having said that, infection control and prevention, including pandemic preparedness, looms large as we’ve seen with ebolavirus, Zika virus, COVID-19, and now the monkeypox outbreak. Racism and social determinants of health inequities still haunt us in our health system. We need health system reform and improved management. The costs of health care are off the wall, and we are not getting the kind of benefits that the same investments yield in nations that are of comparable economic wealth. Big data and data sciences present immense and exciting challenges. Finally, I think we need much better integration of health services, preventive medicine services, and public health services across our nation and our globe. The inefficient COVID-19 response illustrated this need, as does our chronic struggle to integrate mental health and physical health services.

As someone whose entire career has centered on public health, how would you define or describe this moment in time in the field of public health?

Corporate executives and business leaders, top-level political leaders at every level – federal, state, local – school leaders, and leaders of arts organizations, all have become dependent on public health experts to keep their constituencies safe. There are now jobs for our graduates that did not even exist three years ago. Companies are hiring public health disease control and prevention specialists and non-profits are now embracing public health in ways that we have never seen before. Pandemic trauma and the loss of a million lives in the U.S. have been a wake-up call. Social entrepreneurship opportunities and the economic impact of COVID-19 both have accelerated our public-private partnerships.

On the public sector side, we still have disputes between our political parties and an immense challenge in rowing the oars in the same direction. Public health was always political, but it wasn’t partisan. It was political because if you need a new sewer system, for example, you have to vote to raise taxes to get the new sewer system, but you would always have bipartisanship in community efforts like that. We’re going to have to overcome some of that partisan sentiment vis-à-vis public health to find the common ground that benefits us all.

What advice would you give students considering a future career in public health?

Students and alumni are experiencing newfound respect for our field. People seem to understand and appreciate public health more so now than before and this has led to new opportunities for those of us in public health to have a significant impact on community wellness, health policy, and practice. The employment options in state and local health departments, in private industry, and in global settings are quite favorable at present. I hope that the modern public health professional will have considerably greater influence than perhaps my generation did.

Having led the school for the past 5 years, what is your overall impression of the Yale School of Public Health?

While enhancing our core research-intensive enterprise, I’ve seen some evolution over the last five years. I think we’re more socially engaged now. Our social and behavioral scientists have led our efforts in justice and anti-racism in health. Our epidemiologists, biostatisticians, and environmental health experts have taken their expertise into research and practice in a myriad of topics. Our health policy and management faculty strive toward health systems improvement and equity. Our Office of Public Health Practice and faculty from across the school are bringing us out of our academic niches into community relevance more than ever. I think we are more student-centric than we used to be, and we’ve seen student ratings of teaching hit historic highs. The school is also far more diverse than it used to be, among the faculty, staff, and student body alike. At the same time, we will face new challenges as an independent school including — resolving our chronic financial challenges, launching new administrative budgeting to empower our departments, establishing or transitioning programs such as regulatory sciences, and more. Dr. Pettigrew and her team have their hands full!

Is there anything else you would like to say or share for this article?

It has been a great privilege to work at the Yale School of Public Health as dean. This is a time of rising awareness in the field of public health both inside and outside the university and I’ve been very pleased to support the faculty, staff, and students to achieve greater success and impact.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on July 12, 2022