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Celebrating 25 Years of Our School

Posted on November 29, 2021
Celebrating 25 years of history and impact at Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health

By Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH

This year the Dornsife School of Public Health is celebrating 25 years. Twenty-five years can be a short time or a very long time. My niece who is spending Thanksgiving with us turned 23 last May but feels old, or so she tells us as she anxiously ponders her future in the time of COVID-19. Twenty-five years ago, I had just finished my PhD and moved to New York City, and I felt that my whole life (or at least most of it) still lay ahead of me. This certainly feels like a very long time ago now. In 1996, our school was launching its first MPH cohort of just 24 students. In 1998, Jonathan Mann was named Dean of what was then the Allegheny University School of Public Health which would become the Drexel School of Public Health in 2002 and subsequently the Dornsife School of Public Health in 2015. When I think of our school in this way, realizing that it did not even exist before I moved to New York, it seems like a very young school indeed.

I must admit that I knew very little about the Drexel School of Public Health when I flew to Philadelphia in 2013 to meet with the Dean search committee in a bland hotel conference room. But I asked about it, I read about it, and I spoke to friends and colleagues. And the more I learned the more I realized that this school was something different, something special. I felt that it was a place that could be an academic home for a person like me, an immigrant who had grown up between countries and always felt a bit like an outsider, an academic who would have wanted to be a practitioner, someone who believed that science and truth and facts can help create a better world but who also knew that social change must be driven by a moral commitment to justice and fairness.

One of the things that first struck me about our school is that it is a place with a strong sense of mission, which I believe is grounded in the school’s very foundation as a response to the health needs of our home, the City of Philadelphia. This sense of mission has infused the way in which the school community thinks about itself and goes well beyond what can be captured in an institutional mission statement. Our school’s mission is driven by three key things: a commitment to Philadelphia, and through it to cities all over the world; the belief that social justice lies at the root of improving health; and the firm conviction that we can and must use our skills to support effective practice and policy, recognizing that our science and training must have the goal of effecting change and creating a world that is healthier for all.

Shortly after I joined the school someone shared with me articles written by Jonathan Mann, whose vision profoundly shaped the trajectory of the school although sadly he was only Dean for a short time. I found in these articles, written in the 1990s, a discussion of health equity and the social determinants of health, the structural and systemic social determinants of health, that still resonates today. I was grateful for that, because it confirmed that somehow, as fate had it, I had ended up in the right place. Now nearly eight years later, despite all the challenges, I know that I was not wrong.

Over the past 10 years our school has grown dramatically: its educational programs have expanded in size and number and the delivery modes and content have changed, adapting to a changing public health context. Our research has blossomed with external funding tripling over the past 7 years, and we have emerged as a leader in public health research at Drexel University and across the region. The school’s partnerships and community engagement has evolved and grown, also adapting to new needs, new partners, and new members of our community. We have worked hard to support our growth and development and the change needed to address evolving public health needs while at the same time sustaining an enduring commitment to our foundational principles. This balance can be challenging to achieve, but our mission guides us and growth and change are fundamental to achieving our mission in an evolving world. In this newsletter and in publications over the next several months, we will share with you more about everything that we have accomplished in these first 25 years.

We begin our second 25 years as school at a historical juncture: at what we hope is the tail end of a pandemic, in the midst of a growing and increasingly inevitable climate crisis, and struggling to finally change the structures and systems that perpetuate racism and inequality as fundamental threats to our health. The pandemic has shown us that we can be resilient but has also highlighted all that we still need to do to promote public health and health equity in our city but also across the world.

As I reflect on the past 25 years, I wonder what our school will be like 25 years from now, what a future Dean will write when the school turns 50. Although 25 years is indeed not a very long time, there are many examples in our history when much has changed in just 25 years, especially in times of crisis. If I am optimistic (despite everything I usually am…stubbornly optimistic) I can sense that we are on the verge of new times and that so much could change for the better, if only we are able to use our intelligence, our compassion, and our humanity to make positive change happen. No doubt this change will be hard and there will be setbacks, but if the past 25 years is any indication, I know that the Dornsife School of Public Health will help to lead the way.

View Our 25-Year Timeline