Updated March 24 at 9:22 a.m.
An ice storm of academic austerity rolled through Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health this winter, and there were casualties. In January, students in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences learned that two of their most accomplished and world-renowned faculty members, Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, had been issued letters of non-renewal. In other words, they were laid off. Their illustrious careers, spanning decades of service at Columbia and focusing on the social and economic determinants of health, were no longer sustainable.
Many schools of public health, including Mailman, require that faculty members raise up to 80 percent of their salaries through soft-money grants. When the National Institutes of Health’s belt tightens—as it has in recent years—schools of public health feel the squeeze, and tough sacrifices must be made.
At least, that’s what the administration of Mailman and the University at large have determined. But, as is typical when austerity is in the forecast, not all sacrifices are equal. On Feb. 21, Columbia touted its entrepreneurship and innovation as University President Lee Bollinger announced a new University-wide task force dedicated to the industry-friendly, commodifiable science known as “personalized” medicine—no price tag was announced. This was shortly after students learned that SMS had accepted no new medical anthropology doctoral students because of Vance’s and Hopper’s layoffs. Columbia is jeopardizing Mailman’s intellectual and public legacy, ostensibly to cut costs, even as it completes a $6 billion capital campaign and breaks ground on a $50 million medical and graduate education building.
Mailman students don’t buy this tale of two Columbias. A group of students, alumni, and concerned members of the academic community at large is demanding the immediate reinstatement of Vance and Hopper. They have protested and sent the administration petitions signed by leading scholars such as Paul Farmer and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, asking for these dismissals to be rescinded. But beyond saving these two jobs, students are also demanding public discussion on the political and economic forces jeopardizing Mailman’s mission. And national media like The Nation, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed have taken note.
Administrators have been willing to meet with students, but are they really listening? They tell us times are tough, budgets are being cut everywhere, and complaints should be directed at NIH grant reviewers who set funding priorities. It’s true that some institutes within NIH have narrowed their purview—for example, the National Institute of Mental Health once funded research on poverty and social disparities, but now prefers Big Pharma priorities like brain circuits and genetics. But the University is complicit in promoting the narrowing of the priorities of federal and private funders, as evidenced by Bollinger’s new task force, which could portend further entanglements of academia, industry, and government funders. And Columbia may have questions to answer about its ties with financial interests driving these trends.
Many members of Mailman’s Board of Overseers have private interests in Wall Street, the for-profit health industry, and environmentally toxic industries like fracking. This raises questions about Mailman’s priorities: Why should a school of public health have on its board high-ranking executives of national pharmacy chains, for-profit insurance companies, and medical equipment manufacturers—companies that are typically associated with private, individualized health care and rarely with public health? Mailman board members should not have significant stakes in industries that threaten the autonomy and vitality of public health as a discipline.
A Columbia where one-percenters wield influence while fundamental social science faces extinction is unacceptable. If we must weather austerity, it should happen transparently. Mailman deans and chairs should make public their salaries, expense accounts, and travel expenses. They should agree to a public reckoning of the Board of Overseers’ private interests as they relate to public health. Students should demand bottom-up mechanisms for decision-making and priority-setting, like a graduate student employee union.
Columbia—one of the world’s largest, wealthiest, and most powerful universities—is not helpless in the face of federal budget fluctuations. Mailman must do more to strike a balance. It could rescind these letters of non-renewal and, like Harvard, pursue alternative funding streams for important work for which federal grants are disappearing. Getting back on the right track will mean reforming Mailman’s financial structure and its overarching research and fundraising priorities.
For graduate students like me, the stakes are high. We have dedicated our professional lives to advancing public health research, education, and practice—not to asking an industry’s questions in order to win its grants. We expect Columbia’s administrators to exercise their power, publicly and privately, in ways that are consistent with a broader vision of public health—a vision rooted in rigorous social science research and education, not just current priorities of the biomedical community and federal bureaucrats. We expect Columbia to safeguard this vital field’s autonomy. Students are eager to stand with administrators who will fight for this cause. We hope they will stand with us.
The author is a third-year doctoral student of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health.
Clarification: This article was updated to better reflect the author's position on the University-wide task force's allocation of money.
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