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Oral History looks back at the School of Public Health at the dawn of the century

Since its founding in 1944, UC Berkeley School of Public Health has been advancing the basic human right to a healthy life.

More than 18,000 students later, the school is known for its commitment to social justice, innovation, and strength through diversity. That reputation rests on the commitment of school faculty and staff to the adaptation of new technologies, new ways of teaching, and new ways to support students.

Now, a new oral history project produced by the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, sheds light on some of the major changes the school underwent at the turn of the 21st century.

“Steve Shortell, who was dean of the school from 2002 until 2013, wanted to chronicle the foundation and growth of the On-campus/Online Professional MPH (master’s of public health) Program; the reinstitution of the undergraduate major in public health; the development of an office of diversity; a graduate program in public health practice and leadership; and a center for health leadership,formerly known as the Center for Public Health Practice and Leadership and currently known as RISE,” wrote Oral History Center Director Paul Burnett in a post on the library’s website.

“I thought it was important for the current Berkeley Public Health community, alumni, donors, and friends to know about the reopening of or our undergraduate, upper division major, the development of the campus’s first largely online accredited graduate degree program, and the establishment at that time of the first unit level Office of Diversity,” said Dr. Shortell during one of three interviews available online. “These  initiatives, led by the faculty interviewed in the oral history, I think fundamentally changed the nature of the school and have positioned it for continued success, impact,and influence in the future.”

Through interviews with Shortell and eight other current and former faculty and staff, the project brings the recent growth of the school to life, concluding with Dr. Art Reingold on teaching in the time of COVID.

Voices from UC Berkeley School of Public Health Oral History Project

People coming into public health…they want to make change in their communities. Many of them have lived experience that really—you know, they have had a challenging time getting healthcare themselves, getting health access, or dealing with the challenging social determinants of health. And so we wanted to prepare them to become agents of change who are going to make a difference in their community.

Jeffrey Oxendine, MPH, MBA Current president and co-founder of Health Career Connections and former associate dean of public health practice, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

We get to know all of our students. This is part of our ethos—particularly for remote students, this is important. All of our students, we know who they are. … We value what they bring, and we have just a diversity of background experiences of our students.

Deborah Barnett, PhD, MS Chief of curriculum and instruction, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

So I know that people have different views of vaccines, but what, for me, has been really unprecedented about the COVID is, first of all, the extent to which vaccines have become so highly politicized, and related to politics. And I think I’ve also been taken aback by the virulent attacks on public health, and public health officials in general, and the extent to which people who are just trying to do their job and protect the health of the community are being attacked. Their homes are being picketed. Their children are being threatened. They’re being fired from their jobs. To me, this has really been a really sad revelation of a situation that, frankly, I don’t think I ever envisioned.

Arthur Reingold, MD Professor of epidemiology, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

Fast-forward to today, we see that public health is again at the forefront of everybody’s attention. In fact, almost every newscaster on cable TV is an epidemiologist, [laughs] but that was not the case just three years ago. Three years ago, in fact, [the reaction to] public health would have been, “what’s that?” There was really very little interest in public health. So I think that COVID has actually brought, at least the infectious disease part of public health, to the fore.

Nap Hosang, MD, MPH, MBA Co-CEO at Cadence Health, former director of the On-Campus/Online Professional MPH Program, UC Berkeley School of Public Health

The School of Public Health has a wonderful culture that the students enrich and support. It’s a culture of community, of helping, of democratizing, of empowering, and bringing the knowledge and skills that they have into the lives of people to improve their lives and the communities they live in.

Thomas Rundall, PhD Professor Emeritus, co-director Center for Lean Engagement and Research, UC Berkeley School of Public Health