Engaging public health faculty to make healthier campus decisions

As universities move from a crisis response to ongoing management of Covid-19, this guide outlines why and how to engage public health faculty in campus decision-making


University of Louisville,Eastern Michigan University
5 Apr 2022
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As we learned during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, operational decisions related to the virus were difficult and carried severe consequences. In some cases, these decisions did not result in the best outcomes for students, university faculty and staff and surrounding communities. Early in the pandemic, we were curious as to whether universities were capitalising on the public health expertise of their faculty to guide their response plans. We found that universities with highly regarded public health programmes were much less likely to maintain a business-as-usual approach to instruction, generally opting for a substantial increase in online instruction without fully abandoning on-campus teaching.

As the pandemic shifts from an emerging crisis to a diminishing, yet ongoing, challenge, it is perhaps an ideal time to reflect on how or why certain university-level decisions were and are made, and more specifically, how leveraging public health faculty expertise can improve faculty engagement as well as university responses to future health-related crises.

Meaningful service

Much has recently been written about faculty burnout and disengagement. For many universities, the pandemic exacerbated existing strains of declining enrolments and budgets. Tapping into their expertise is a way to make faculty feel valued.

  • Public health faculty can continue to serve on the ad hoc subcommittee to rename the lacrosse team’s practice field because service to the university is part of the job, but we would rather serve the campus community in ways that leverage our years of experience and passion for public health.
  • University administrators should be mindful of the differences between physicians, nurses and other clinical professionals who are experts in improving health outcomes for individual patients, and public health professionals who are trained to focus on the health of whole populations. These complementary perspectives can greatly benefit an institution in which faculty from each profession are present. It may be a beneficial exercise to explore their respective responsibilities and functions within an institution, looking for intersections to reduce faculty burden and improve efficiencies, as well as opportunities to improve appropriate fit.

It’s not just Covid

While the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated our lives, it is hardly the only health-related crisis that campuses are facing. Sexual assault, binge drinking, violence, racism and other issues keeping university administrators up at night are exactly the sort of community health challenges that public health faculty research every day.

  • Strategic management and crisis management plans should always include public health faculty input. Public health training includes systems thinking, and these scholars can help identify potential health implications of a variety of policies that may at first appear unrelated to health.
  • Emerging health issues and future threats will require universities to be nimble in their responses. Public health faculty can help create policies to support continuity of instruction in changing conditions.

But also, there’s still Covid

As much as we’d all prefer a return to normal, Covid-19 is very much still with us. Whether we are challenged with subsequent waves of high case counts or a transition to steadier, endemic levels, universities will still need to make informed decisions about Covid-19. What we do know is that the pandemic will not simply “end”. It is not binary, but rather a continuum of more and less disease, with changing levels of risk.

  • In the absence of a coordinated national prevention and response strategy to Covid-19, and in some cases absence of a coordinated state or local government prevention and response strategy to Covid-19, prevention and response efforts within the university become increasingly important. Public health faculty can help guide a university toward decisions and policies that honour population health, while considering competing fiscal and pedagogical priorities.
  • Many public health faculty members are uniquely equipped to assist with messaging around policies and evolving recommendations, since a central aspect of the profession involves clearly communicating (sometimes complex) health information to the public. In the US, communication missteps around masks and transmission early in the pandemic led to public mistrust. Public health faculty can help administrators avoid these issues in future.
  • Risk consideration and calculation is another area in which public health faculty may provide input. Sometimes risk elimination is not a viable option for a variety of reasons, but public health faculty can provide input on appropriate risk reduction strategies that protect the public at large without placing undue burden on more vulnerable members of the campus community.

Universities are complex organisations but have one incredible and inherent advantage over other industries – the diverse expertise of our workforce. The pandemic has shown how difficult it can be for any organisation to respond to and operate within an ongoing crisis. Institutions with public health faculty are therefore at a strategic advantage in responding to public health threats due to their specific expertise. This advantage is only realised, however, when they are brought into the decision-making process.

David Johnson is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville; Sarah Walsh is an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University.

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