Announcement Launching Dual-Degree (BA-MPH) Program in Partnership with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

September 13, 2019

I am delighted this day has finally come! The launch of an innovative BA-MPH program and birth of an exciting collaboration between Vassar and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia. Welcome Dean Fried and Vice Dean Kornfeld, and thank you for the tremendous effort to make this program possible, today and in the future. I am also so thankful to the many students, alums, and community members who have come to support this launch. The community partners we work with regularly have set up tables in the back, and I hope everyone will visit and get to know some new faces committed to the vision of Building Healthy Communities, echoed throughout this Symposium.

The partnership allows our two schools to offer a BA-MPH program in which Vassar students apply as juniors to the program, complete one semester in the fall of their senior year at Mailman School of Public Health, and then return to complete their BA at Vassar. The summer afterwards, they work an internship in public health associated with the MPH part of their program and then complete the degree within one year, at Columbia. This will allow our students to earn both a BA and an MPH in just five years, and we hope to have up to 10 students in this program annually ultimately.

As the president of Vassar and a public health scholar myself, I cannot help but use my time to talk a bit about what I see as the tremendous opportunity when we bring together liberal arts thinking, which we feature at Vassar, and public health research and practice, so ably exemplified by the work of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia.

Liberal arts and public health have a lot in common.

First, they both seek to tackle fundamental dilemmas and problems of humanity and well-being. Liberal arts education, grounded in educational practices of 8th Century BC in Greece, sought and seeks to ask and debate important questions; among them—what makes for a good life? How is one to live? What is well-being? These are also key questions at the roots of public health, and although the genesis of the concepts of public health would have to wait for the Ancient Roman Augustus and Agrippa in 1st Century BC, these same questions were and are at its heart.

Second, both liberal arts education and public health apply a broad, interdisciplinary lens to questions of human thriving, a lens that recognizes context and the foundational belief that individual experiences are embedded in larger social structures and systems, i.e., context matters.

Third, both liberal arts and public health grapple with how to bridge theory and practice. This program of studying both in the classroom and with practical internships in communities will help illustrate again and again how integrating theory and practice can be mutually beneficial, making the theory more grounded and the practice more innovative.

Last, both liberal arts education and the field of public health have at their core the goal of empowerment—empowerment of individuals, of communities, of populations. Empowerment in the sense of being equipped to think independently, to gather data and test hypotheses for oneself, and to creatively solve problems of disease and ill health.

My own pathway to public health began in childhood when I had a deep curiosity about health and health care. I never wanted to be a physician, but I volunteered in the hospital and became interested in how systems worked. My first real job after school was as a hospital administrator at Massachusetts General Hospital, and I loved it for several years. But over time, I noted that even as we were making many improvements in work flows and quality of patients’ experiences at the hospital, I kept wondering—is Boston getting any healthier? With my economics and art history training from college and an MBA, I did not yet feel equipped to answer that question.

So I returned to school for a PhD in public health and health economics to develop what I hoped would be new sets of tools to help with these questions of the community’s health. In my first class in 1992, sociologist David Williams, now at Harvard, asserted that only about 10% of the reductions in premature deaths over the last 75 years were due to medical care. The vast majority of gains were due to social and environmental factors—such as nutrition, employment, housing…but not medical care. I was flabbergasted. I remember raising my hand and saying, are you sure? How can that be? But in that first semester, as I wrapped my brain around what Professor Williams was saying, I could feel my world opening up. A very exciting time—like what we get a glimpse of today amidst the research and discussions to come.

The combination of a BA and MPH is a very relevant path for people interested in health, social justice, and interdisciplinary approaches known to be so strong in the Vassar education. And the Mailman School of Public Health was an ideal partner—for many reasons. As you will see in Dean Fried and Vice Dean Kornfeld, the school has tremendous leadership and foresight. These two women are visionary but also practical, and thus are excellent partners. Furthermore, the Columbia public health curriculum is strongly motivated by issues of social justice and taught in an integrative way beginning with a semester focused on the core of public health, which students in the BA-MPH program will begin in their senior year. Last, Columbia is relatively proximate and has interest in Poughkeepsie as a place to examine issues of population health in a post-industrial town with many challenges but also important assets. Thus, the leadership, the curriculum, and the Poughkeepsie interest were all synergies that made this joint effort particularly attractive.

Effective strategists know that when starting something new and inventive, it is good to “start with the end in mind.” And so, I would like to paint a picture of what this program might accomplish over the next five years if we are successful.

As faculty and students, we will see expansion of our intellectual and practical work, with dozens of students completing the 4+1 joint program; we will experience new partnerships among Columbia, Vassar, and the Poughkeepsie communities to foster, support, and evaluate public health efforts in this area. We will also see new research collaborations emerge that involve faculty and students from both schools. Finally, we will together be a stronger community of scholars that embody the best of education—where our work together recognizes context, is embedded in the larger social structures around us, and is successful in empowering communities to improve health and well-being for all.

Faculty and leadership of the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, we are thankful for your enthusiasm in this joint program and delighted to welcome you to Vassar! Thank you.

Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604