Public health curriculum must be restructured

I always thought Yale was a place for educating leaders. Indeed with all the resources and opportunities available at this top university, Yale prides itself on cultivating leadership through its wide curriculum. So at a recent meeting of student leaders, organized by the Yale Public Health Coalition, I was surprised to find a consensus that many students weren’t getting the education they needed to pursue their passions.

Outside the classroom, there’s no shortage of public health opportunities. More than 40 undergraduate groups are working on public health issues, and over 340 students have signed up for the Yale Public Health Coalition weekly newsletter. Student groups are collaborating more than ever before, as evidenced by Global Health Week last semester and Health Care Access Week going on now.

Inside the classroom, however, student demand simply exceeds supply. Despite an increase in student interest in health-related seminars, these courses are routinely oversubscribed, and major gaps remain. It’s ironic that this “global university” lacks a basic course in global health, and it’s a cruel tease for students that courses like medical anthropology have appeared in the Blue Book and then have been canceled several years in a row. Yale’s innovative five-year B.S./B.A. Master of Public Health (MPH) program offered by the School of Public Health is an important step forward. But this year about 100 students are estimated to apply, and only 10 will be admitted.

In addition to a shortage of classes, there’s a shortage of curricular structure. In 2005, a short blurb concerning public health was added to the Blue Book, with an unhelpful recommendation to look at 18 different departments that relate to public health. Students may try to make a special divisional major in health studies, but with so many departments to navigate, it’s nearly impossible and comes with the cost of losing coherency, advising and seminar privileges. Moreover, there is so much disconnect between departments that students often find themselves reading the same book in different classes. We students who are so ready to collaborate on extracurricular pursuits in public health face a curriculum unwilling to do the same.

Believe it or not, the recommendation to build a coherent program for students interested in health issues has been in a filing cabinet somewhere for nearly five years. In the spring of 2003, the Committee on Yale College Education urged the creation of an interdisciplinary health studies program at Yale. Students have always supported this proposal, and in the spring of 2006, the Yale College Council passed a resolution in favor of a health studies program.

Rather than being a mere pre-med major, this program would allow students to apply a liberal arts perspective to the current, complex challenges to human health. As the 2003 report stated, “Issues as diverse as the AIDS epidemic, bioterrorism, and successful aging can be addressed from perspectives rooted in the biological sciences, social sciences, or policy analysis.”

While the health studies program has been stuck in committee with no official timeline to date, many other universities have been active in responding to student demand. The former dean of the Yale School of Public Health, Dr. Michael Merson, left Yale to start a global health initiative at Duke University. In addition, an interfaculty initiative at Harvard University started a health policy certificate program seven years ago. These programs demonstrate that health studies can and should be a part of a liberal arts curriculum. As second majors, health studies programs do not detract from a disciplinary focus but rather enhance it by providing a fresh perspective to the liberal arts.

Isn’t this what a Yale education should be about?

With all Yale’s resources, there’s no reason that it can’t step up to this task. After the recently celebrated 28 percent increase in investment return, there is more than enough money available. With 43 health studies-related courses already being offered across the University, only a few additional courses and curricular restructuring will be needed. We simply need a catalyst for coordination.

This week, students are stepping up to be that catalyst. As part of Health Care Access Week, members of the Yale Public Health Coalition will be tabling to collect signatures of support from faculty and students to urge the administration to start acting on its own recommendations and create health studies as a second major. In addition, this Thursday, Dr. Merson will be coming back to Yale to share his experiences about creating a global health program attuned to the challenges of the 21st century.

In the end, all we’re asking for is an education. Nearly five years ago the University recognized the gaps in interdisciplinary health studies, but it has yet to act. It’s great be involved in activism and awareness outside the classroom, but students will need a stronger academic preparation to face the most pressing health challenges and continue Yale’s legacy of leadership.

Samantha Diamond is a sophomore in Morse College.

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