Making Headway on the School of Public Health Initiative


One of the hot topics at PSU is the potential Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU)/Portland State University (PSU) joint School of Public Health (SPH). I say ‘hot’ because we are finally seeing years of work develop into a tangible proposal and because of the recent large number of open forums, faculty meetings, Senate committee meetings, and requests for information on the topic.  It is great to see such involvement in something so important—it is not every day that PSU contemplates establishment of a new school and to create huge opportunities for the future of the University and our students.

Not a new idea

Conversations about a SPH began in 2007, and are by no means new. My first involvement was in 2010 (almost two years before my July 2012 arrival at PSU) when I was the Vice Chancellor for Academic Strategies for the Oregon University System. At that time, Oregon State University (OSU), OHSU, and PSU were exploring one joint school for the State. Since then, OSU established a school of public health on its own and in 2014 received its Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) accreditation.

OHSU and PSU faculty, staff, students and administrators have collectively held well over a hundred meetings assessing the need, feasibility, challenges, and opportunities for a joint school.  Those conversations have ranged from small group meetings to large open campus forums. I have provided brief updates to the Faculty Senate over the past few years (found in their minutes).

Strategic partnerships are not new to PSU and OHSU. We have a 21 year history of offering the joint OMPH (Oregon Masters in Public Health); we have many faculty who collaborate on research; and we now co-occupy the Collaborative Life Sciences Building (CLSB) on the south waterfront.

What has been easy?

OHSU and PSU are both strong in the area of public health.  The unique strengths they would bring to create a joint school would benefit students, faculty, our community and beyond.  PSU already offers a number of the academic programs that will comprise a SPH.  The remaining programs will come from OHSU. There is no question that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. In PSU’s case, it will be to take our existing faculty expertise and programs in community health, health promotion, health studies, health management and policy, and health systems and policy, and allow them to grow, be stronger, improve in quality and better serve students.

What’s not been so easy?

It is not easy to bring two universities with differences in structure, funding models, personnel, etc. together in an equity partnership. It is also a challenge to look beyond the immediate present constraints of budgets and imagine a future for PSU that is enhanced by a strong, high quality, nationally-recognized School of Public Health.

Additionally, it is not simple for everyone to understand and appreciate the different lenses and vantage points groups and individuals have on the potential school. Individual faculty and staff wonder what it means for them in their day-to-day work:  impact on career and responsibilities. There are department/school level questions about governance, curriculum, budget, and organizational structure.  Our Faculty Senate committees (the Faculty Senate Budget Committee and the Educational Policy Committee) are looking at the impact of a new school on existing schools and colleges, viability of a school of public health, and how governance will work. Most recently I addressed some of these in a memo to faculty in the College of Urban and Public Affairs.

Our students and our future

These important issues have been discussed over the past three years and we now know enough to respond to them.  There are two questions worth highlighting:

  • What does it mean for students for PSU to have a SPH?
  • What does it mean for the future of the University?

The gain for students will be depth and breadth of faculty expertise and program choice through our OHSU partnership. The plan would be for our students will graduate from an accredited school of public health with degrees issued in both universities’ names.  Their degree will have greater value because of the collaboration and accreditation–as we know, accreditation demonstrates the quality others see in our programs.  At present there are only 51 accredited Schools of Public Health in the country. A collaborative school with OHSU would put us at the 25th percentile in size of enrollment based on our current MPH programs.

Looking ahead

Where would we be today if our predecessors had not seen the potential of creating new schools and colleges? The College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA) is the best example of this. It became its own college in 1998  from a vision that recognized PSU’s strengths at the time and the future significant contributions we could make to our community.

The SPH has the same potential in public health.

We have a lot to gain in creating a SPH, so I ask that you engage in campus conversations about the joint venture. I urge our Faculty Senate to take action on the proposal to establish a joint school before the end of this academic year.  Although this is a big step for PSU, it will benefit the entire university in our continued efforts to create a world-class university that serves our students and the needs of our city, region, and state.

We have posted information about the SPH initiative on website currently hosted by OHSU, but soon to migrate to a joint website.


8 thoughts on “Making Headway on the School of Public Health Initiative

  1. Thanks for all the work you, the Steering Committee, and many other faculty members have done so far to even get to this point. It seems like no small task! I’m sure there are plenty of details to still work out, but the School of Public Health will ultimately be a huge benefit to both institutions, and of course to our students and faculty and the communities we serve.


  2. I want to echo Christina’s thanks to everyone involved! This is clearly a huge undertaking and it does involve risks. But a robust nationally regarded School of Public Health clearly offers tremendous opportunities for our campus and our students as well. As someone who works with high achieving students from across the country I can say with confidence that the joint School of Public Health would help attract great students to our campus and provide many of our students with unique and engaging experiences.


  3. In response to the two questions you highlight, I’d like to bring up some puzzling points.
    First, you ask: “what does it mean for students to have an SPH?”
    For one, I think it might mean a character change of how PSU has looked at health. There are differences between how some view “community health” and how some view “public health.” (There’s an interesting thread on this over at ResearchGate.) Certainly the differences might be subtle to a disciplinary outsider, but it is an important distinction to consider, particular since PSU prides itself on community engagement, participatory action research, and community based participatory research projects. Will, over time, this move erode the community-based nature of a student’s experience? What are the long term disciplinary culture ramifications of such a move? Will this be a move away from community engagement? Probably not, but it might take a different shape.

    Second, you ask “What does it mean for the future of the University?” Given that public health programs and the health workforce in the United States is growing, it certainly points to an influx of students for the university. (See a recent article published in Public Health Reports.) But is the university positioned to handle exponential growth? Can our IT infrastructures handle it? Have we planned to provide pivotal services for growth such as in human resources that can provide for advising, mentoring, funding for more librarians to teach students how to critically evaluate information resources and search for evidence-based research? Can Portland support all of internships required of undergraduate and graduate students who are enrolled in these programs?

    I, of course, have no answers, but I am nervously anxious for what is to come. My own fears in working with our current School of Public Health and with CUPA, is that we do not have the material or human resources to support such growth. As such, SPH students and students in CUPA might suffer from lack of response or time from already stretched thin library staff members, or that they cannot access the materials they need because of cuts that have been made to the library budget. Will we be serving students as well as we can? We can try, but there is a breaking point. Where exactly it is, I don’t know.


    • Questions about PSU resource shortages are important during these times of external and internal financial stress. One of the benefits of PSU’s Shared Governance Model is the diligence of review by the committees of the Faculty Senate. During our four meetings with the Faculty Senate Budget Committee, we shared how the School of Public Health budget model will work and that it is subject to the same annual processes for PSU resources as other PSU academic units. Student and faculty growth could continue to stress available resources. There are two features we expect will be improved with the collaborative School of Public Health.

      First, we will use the research infrastructure at OHSU for all of the School of Public Health faculty grant submissions and management, while protecting the credit to, and IDCs assigned to PSU faculty. In addition, the collaborative MOU grants access to all MPH students including those from PSU to OHSU’s library and resources. While both universities experience shortages for resources like journals, OHSU’s large repository and resource allocation to health and science topics and staff expertise may balance out, or even relieve some PSU student stresses from the public health degree programs. Sharing the burden for research and teaching between our two institutions can buffer the continued shortages we experience.


      • Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Elena.

        I am less concerned about students’ access to library resources, than I am for the human resources needed to partner with disciplinary faculty to teach students necessary information literacy and information research skills. Without the human capacity to teach students and partner with disciplinary faculty to look at curriculum and teaching strategies that will empower students to be critically engaged with information, access to resources is almost meaningless. If students access resources without being taught to engage with or use them effectively, we have failed them.


  4. In the sustainability arena, both in theory and in practice, health is increasingly a central focus of conversation, research, and problem-solving. For many at PSU, health has been embraced as a critical representation of the “social side” of sustainability – be it through the lens of social determinants of health, health equity, environmental justice, or other perspectives. ISS has been engaged with many community partners in an exploration of the interface between conservation and health, as well as an effort to integrate food systems with the work being done at OSHU and PSU in the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHAD). The partnership between OHSU and PSU that the school represents, combined with PSU’s long-standing collaborations with community organizations, opens up exciting opportunities for PSU to strengthen its leadership in sustainability by being at the forefront of such integrative efforts.


  5. I chose to participate as a PSU representative on the joint OHSU-PSU SPH Steering Committee, which entailed meetings every two weeks for over two years, because my academic home, the School of Social Work, and I deeply believe that through our institutional partnership in a joint School of Public Health, we will be positioned to bring much-needed attention and expertise to the critical issues of ameliorating physical and mental health disparities and fostering genuine academic-community partnerships for health promotion and prevention. PSU’s mission is to serve the city, region and nation, and I hope we will move forward to capitalize on this important opportunity to make a difference.


  6. While I can’t address curricular issues, the effort already has had an impact on a research/community outreach partnership with the Center for Architecture and its multi-year, interdisciplinary program Building Fit (designing for health). Faculty from PSU’s School of Architecture, School of Community Health and School of Social Work are involved and now this new effort on the joint School of Public Health has made it easier to connect with the appropriate people at OHSU.


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