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Public Health students protest faculty dismissals, funding issues

  • Ayelet Pearl / Senior Staff Photographer
    DOCTORS' DEMANDS | Doctoral students at the Mailman School of Public Health presented complaints about the school's funding system after two recent faculty dismissals at Tuesday's school assembly.

Prompted by recent layoffs of two public health professors, students at the Mailman School of Public Health are urging administrators to change the way the school is funded and rehire the professors.

Wearing brightly-colored shirts emblazoned with black letters saying “Un-Occupy Mailman,” a group of mostly doctoral students presented complaints at Tuesday’s school assembly, saying the school places National Institutes of Health priorities before faculty and students. Unlike Columbia’s other undergraduate and graduate schools, Public Health is largely funded through grants from the NIH.

The complaints come after two prominent public health professors, Kim Hopper, a medical anthropologist specializing in homelessness, and Carole S. Vance, a medical anthropologist specializing in gender and female sexuality, were laid off earlier this year.

“We’re poised to potentially lose faculty that have been teaching at the school for thirty years,” said David Johns, a Public Health doctoral student of sociomedical sciences who led the presentation. “That’s not the kind of institution that we would hope to be a part of. That’s why we’re here. We intend this to be a conversation.”

“What we stand for and what we’re against is the design of the school funding model and its privileging of NIH priorities without equally supporting mentorship, teaching, and scholarship,” he added.

Hopper, who wasn't at the meeting, said he thought his and dismissal was tied to funding issues.

“My major salary support comes from my FT research appointment elsewhere, which is also where my grant support is housed. So, I’ve tried to fulfill my faculty responsibilities and earn my SMS [sociomedical sciences] keep by teaching and advising students,”  Hopper said in an email. “That’s worked fine for the past 12 years or so, but whatever hidden aquifers have fed that well in the past have dried up.”

Vance, present at the meeting, also said that there was an increasing problem with the school’s model of relying on grant funding for teaching salaries.

“The students are correct in pointing out that requiring faculty members to fund 80% of their salaries through external grants is unbelievable at an educational institution,” she said in an email. “This means that only 20% of faculty time is available for teaching, mentoring, and advising.” 

Seventh year doctoral student Sara Lewis asked how the students can get involved in getting more money from the main campus to Public Health, mentioning the $6.1 billion capital campaign that wrapped up last week.

“We understand that fees being claimed by the downtown campus have been increasing by about five percent over the past few years and that Mailman has been unable to help these exorbitant increases,” Lewis said. “We recognize that the University is not giving you enough support, and if the school does actually value social sciences as a part of the overall institution, then this model is not tenable.” 

Other students asked how the school expects to maintain a certain level of teaching when professors are expected to raise 80 percent of their salaries through grants, and how the school will continue to make degrees affordable for all students.

“One of our main concerns is how to ensure that doctoral students can maintain health insurance after they’re covered in coursework,” Caitlin McMahon, a second year doctoral student at Public Health, said.

Administrators and professors at the assembly largely spoke out in support of the student efforts to begin a conversation.

“Public health depends on soliciting feedback from all stakeholders. That is why Dean Fried invited doctoral students to share their concerns — concerns we all have — about the importance of maintaining the high quality of a Mailman education in the face of reduced federal support,” Peter Taback, a spokesperson for Public Health, said in a statement. He added that Dean Linda Fried had gone out of her way to include students in the meeting.

“How do we make it not just a performance but something that’s going to change our future?” Amy Fairchild, professor of sociomedical sciences, said.

Taback said that public health education was traditionally funded by the NIH, but that administrators were working with students and faculty to see what changes could be made. 

“Public health education was built on a model that is challenging to sustain with the current budget of the National Institutes of Health and other funders, a situation the public health community in this country is grappling with,” he said. “Dean Fried is working in an ongoing way with academic and administrative leaders, with students, and with faculty to understand our needs and determine how we can meet our mission and expectations with new financial approaches.”

Ronald Bayer, professor of sociomedical sciences and co-chair of Public Health’s Faculty Steering Committee, responded to the students at the meeting with cautious optimism.

“We are not like the law school, we are not like the medical school,” he said about the school’s funding system. “Although it is uncomfortable, anger is a very good thing.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that neither Hopper nor Vance were present at Tuesday's meeting. Hopper was not present, but Vance was. Spectator regrets the error.

eva.kalikoff@columbiaspectator.com  |  @EvaKalikoff

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Anonymous posted on

The school of public health needs a big donor like Bloomberg. The deans should be meeting with him for funding.

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Alexandre B. posted on

Hopefully this initiative will transcend the walls of Columbia since it is a problem of many other well renowned institutions. I always asked myself, why highly respected public health and medical researchers are subjected to this funding model?
Professors are distracted from mentorship and research itself to satisfy non-sustainable funding requirements. The initiating driving passion that many professors had at the beginning of their carriers as well as the quality of education and research are paying the price of the system, not to mention the people that should benefit from the results of research around the world.

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Anonymous posted on

I graduated from Mailman $60k in debt after just 3 semesters, but professors need to obtain grants for 80% of their salary? Where does all the tuition money go? There are over 1000 masters students at mailman, and apparently only 20% of the boatload of money they are paying actually goes towards their education.

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Anonymous posted on

I think Columbia, like most other universities, uses terminal masters programs as a way to bring in a lot of cash from students. They market programs like this and have as many students as they can possibly can to make a lot of money. The money is used for other purposes and in other locations.

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Anonymous posted on

This is unfortunately correct, except that the money stays largely at Mailman. As a student at MSPH, I've had conversations where I've asked the very question about the uses of Masters students' tuition -- even though I wasn't a part of this demonstration. The money is funneled through multiple levels at MSPH before it even reaches the individual departments because it is used, in essence, to pay the department's dues/bills/"rent". Couple that with a(n unpublished and, thus, unverifiable on my end) decline in Masters students this past year and reduced grant availability, and you have an untenable recipe for financial trouble. It's just frustrating to lose scholars who attend to student mentorship in lieu of those whose priority is their own academic acclaim.

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Anonymous posted on

You have to remember that very few students are paying full tuition, especially at an institution like Columbia. Most receive aid, grants, scholarships, research money, or are sent from foreign countries, etc. so the tuition tally is a lot less than you might think. Much of it goes to paying other students' tuition.

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Anonymous posted on

You are correct with respect to doctoral students, but completely wrong when it comes to masters students. The vast majority pay full tuition.

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Anonymous posted on

Masters students are expected to pay full tuition through grants, loans and personal savings. The most need scholarship that Columbia will provide to masters students is $5K.

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Anonymous posted on

Why do we need a school of "public health" to begin with? Why is "health" the subject of public policy to begin with? Why is it not up to each individual to look after their own health? Why does a university or a government need to do it for them? Can anybody actually answer these questions for me? PS The private citizens' health is none of your d#$n business. Period. End of sentence. Go get a job. A real job that people pay you for. Instead of sitting around deciding what is "best" for people.

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Anonymous posted on

Many MPH graduates go and work for private consulting firms or go on to become MDs. Besides, health policy is just one of a variety of different disciplines within public health.

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Public health student posted on

Yeah, what's the point of public health, other than adding 25 years to the life expectancy of people in the United States in the 20th century, eradicating smallpox from the planet, setting standards for food and water so people don't get e. coli or die from cholera, identifying cigarettes as a major risk factor for cancer and heart disease and cutting rates of smoking, protecting workers form fatal occupational injuries, tracking emerging infectious diseases, fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, screening newborn babies for genetic and endocrine disorders, preventing childhood lead poisoning....

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Anonymous posted on

While completing my coursework for my MPH at Columbia - I took courses from both of these professors - both offered something unique and important that pushed boundaries compared to the typical SMS required coursework. This is a shame and a loss for the program.

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Anonymous posted on

The Sexual, Sexuality and Reproductive Health Certificate would not exist without Carole Vance or her present leadership. This is SUPPOSED to be Columbia's strong suit. WTF?

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Anonymous posted on

If mentors as brilliant and qualified as these two individuals are let down by the system, then the rest of us student-folk don't stand a chance against a system that is flawed to begin with, no? A system that prioritizes its retrieval of federal grants over its mentorship and teaching legacy by world-class faculty. But these faculty are worth fighting for; they deserve to be protected from institutional pressures of a "survival of the fittest" mentality to solely pose as funding magnets.

And oh, the irony of doctoral students in Sociomedical Science standing in front of the Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health, requesting healthcare coverage?! Talk about devoting your career to untangle structural inequalities in health and health access, while you yourself are on the receiving end of that very last strand of dignity you have left, to plead for subsistence. Shame on Columbia University. Shame on us for feeding into the system with our silence.

If learning and teaching like rockstars is not the basis of a university's mission statement, then it makes me question pursuing acedemia. Grants get us far, but they do not make up a university. Students do. Faculty do. You know, the ones who are the current leaders tackling the most complex public health challenges extending through both local and global capacities. As students we don't take it lightly to have them as our mentors. And until those in charge realize this fact, we will not qualify as a leading university of our time for much longer.

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AnonymousMPH posted on

Dr. Hopper shaped my graduate career at Mailman, inspired my current pursuit of a doctoral degree and my dedication to ethnographic research. I am so sad for and disappointed by Columbia.

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