Faculty considers public health concentration due to student demand

An advisory committee composed of 17 faculty members from anthropology, biology, chemistry, economics, environmental studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, statistics and women’s, gender and sexuality studies has been working since the spring to make public health an official area of concentration. Public health has existed as a coordinate program, with a catalog presence and a listing of relevant courses, since 2007. The proposal to make public health an area of concentration has already been approved by the Committee for Educational Policy (CEP). On Nov. 7, the faculty will discuss making public health an official concentration at its monthly meeting and will officially vote on the motion in its December meeting.

The CEP is responsible for evaluating and implementing any changes in the curriculum of the College. All additions or removals of courses, majors, concentrations or programs, in addition to substantial changes to existing academic programs, must be approved by the CEP before being approved by the faculty. The proposal for a new area of concentration includes the scope of the concentration and expected courses. Creating new courses often creates financial burdens in hiring new faculty members; however, in the case of public health, not many new courses are expected to be created or staffed, as the concentration’s course portfolio largely draws on existing courses from many different departments.

“The fact that we are not proposing creating too many new courses is a strength because we are more or less prepared and we are already drawing on the resources,” said Kim Gutschow, lecturer in religion and anthropology and sociology. Gutschow has been heavily involved in the proposal to make public health an official concentration.

However, in designing the concentration, one new course, “The Dimensions of Public Health,” has been created as a revamped version of a prior course. The current course, “Introduction to Public and Global Health,” will be the new gateway course to the concentration. The introductory course is broad in scope, incorporating studies of epidemiology, social justice and historical development of global health, as well as the social determinants of health.

Specifically, the vision for a public health concentration includes the current introductory course, a required course in statistics, three electives from at least two departments, a fieldwork or experiential component and a capstone course. “In the capstone course, concentrators will also work in a multidisciplinary team to identify a public or global health problem and drawing jointly on the methods of their respective disciplines, will develop a comprehensive proposal to address this problem, in a process comparable to the ‘Environmental Planning Workshop’ or the political economy project course,” said Lois Banta, associate professor of biology and chair of the public health advisory committee.

Students interested in completing a concentration in public health would be required to prepare a statement describing the collection of courses, study abroad and experiential learning components they intend to pursue. “In this proposal, candidates for the concentration will describe their intellectual goals and if relevant, how these relate to their professional goals,” Banta said. “A fundamental purpose of the proposal requirement is to encourage the student to consider concretely how he will engage with socio-cultural, behavioral, policy and/or biomedical aspects of population health.”

Precursors to a public health concentration are already in place. The College offers a global health track within the international studies concentration; like the existing public health coordinate program, this option would be absorbed into the new concentration.

Jackline Odhiambo ’14 is one student on the popular global health track. “I have talked with so many students who say they are interested in public health,” she said. “All the public health classes I have taken at Williams are always overenrolled. Sometimes I just fear that I won’t be able to take the class I want because lots of other students, like me, have strong interests in public health.”

Students also have a third option of creating a contract major in public health. This is the path Kelsey Gaetjens ’13 chose to take. “I was interested in health, but wanted to focus on a population/systems approach rather than an individual/clinical one,” Gaetjens said. “Eventually, I decided to create a contract major in institutions and decision-making in public health and received enormous support from the professors involved in the public health coordinate program.”

Gaetjens is not the only student who has expressed interest in public health. Uttara Partap ’13 collaborated with alumnus David Hill ’73, director of global public health at Quinnipiac University School of Medicine, on a research project that found that of the top 50 liberal arts colleges, 42 percent offer a track, concentration or program in public or global health. Partap, therefore, specifically stressed the importance of a public health concentration for the College to keep up with the world. “In this case, it’s not about making Williams stand out, but rather making it keep up with the developing trend in interest, especially when so many other colleges have already made the move and dedicated at least minors, concentrations or other such programs in public health,” Partap said.

Banta also reiterated the importance of keeping up with the developing trend. “Conversion to a concentration would respond to strong student interest in health, experiential learning, service and in distributive justice issues,” she said. “We believe that students will gain substantially more from the intellectual demands of synthesis required in the capstone course than they do currently by simply taking a collection of courses.”

“Public health is a growing field. It is a field for people who are thinking in a liberal way with goals of social justice, doing good and doing something practical. It is a way of thinking about the complexity of the world,” Gutschow said. Lastly, a public health concentration would epitomize the interdisciplinary focus of the College. “The field of public health epitomizes the core goal of a concentration: cross-disciplinary connections,” Banta said. “In this case, those connections are remarkably broad, from economics and mental health to scientific advances and human rights. Elevating the profile of public health studies at Williams to an [area of concentration] draws the attention of current students to this interplay of disciplinary learning and conveys the message to prospective students that the Williams curriculum looks outward and toward the future.”

Banta and the advisory committee are cautiously optimistic about the verdict from the faculty meeting. “At this point, we have offered the introductory course three times, with both student and faculty interest sustained and growing. We held a series of extended discussions last spring about what a formal [area of concentration] would look like,” Banta explained. “The CEP last year was enthusiastic about the intellectual and pedagogical merits of the proposed [area of concentration], and the proposal was well-received when we introduced it last May at the faculty meeting. A more extended discussion at the November faculty meeting is the next step in the process of bringing the proposal to a vote of the full faculty.”