Petition garners support for health major

Despite the growing support of hundreds of Yalies for a new undergraduate major in health studies, administrators said it will be at least a year before such a program can become a reality at Yale.

Students lobbying for the creation of the new health studies major organized and circulated a petition in dining halls and at Yale’s Health Care Access Week, which collected more than 750 student signatures in support of the new program last week.

Of the signees, over 200 indicated on the petition that they would be interested in majoring in health studies if it were offered.

The University has not publicly committed to creating the health studies major, nor has it announced a timeline for its development, although faculty and students have been pushing for its creation for five years, petition-organizer Rob Nelb ’08 said.

Nelb, who is also the co-coordinator and co-founder of the new Public Health Coalition, said the petition’s aim is to expedite the establishment of the health studies major.

Nelb is a staff columnist for the News.

The Public Health Coalition — an umbrella organization that oversees the activities of the over 40 public health-related groups on campus — was founded this year to develop resources for students interested in public health and to coordinate the movement towards creating the new health studies major.

“There are a huge number of students really interested in seeing this happen,” Nelb said. “The bottom line is that we need a firm commitment from the administration.”

The petition called on the administration to continue expanding course offerings in health studies with a view towards combining them into a major, to commit sufficient funds towards the major’s creation and to include students on the Health Studies Advisory Committee, Nelb said. An online petition students launched in April 2006 lobbying for the major gained only 100 signatures, he said.

The health studies major — which would combine courses from several disciplines, including economics, political science, history and the natural sciences — was first recommended by the Committee on Yale College Education Report in 2003.

In April 2006, the Yale College Council passed a resolution calling on the administration to expand the course offerings in health issues, and faculty members on the HSAC have been planning the possible structure of the health studies major for several years, Nelb said.

“There has been considerable effort to increase the number of courses offered in Yale college on health-related topics,” Provost Andrew Hamilton said. “The question as to whether these should gel into a formal major is still under discussion.”

But Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said the administration will not reach a decision on the major for at least a year.

“We’ve been allocating funds on a course-by-course basis for the creation of [health studies] courses,” Salovey said. “This is helping us gauge student interest in an interdisciplinary approach to health. Before we could even build anything like a formal program in public health, we would have to be confident that we have sufficient faculty interest to sustain a major over time.”

This semester, 29 public health-related courses were offered by a variety of different departments. Salovey said student interest in public health-related courses has exceeded the administration’s expectations.

Christopher Udry, chair of HSAC and an economics professor, said the administration committed resources towards creating new classes in health studies this year, and the HSAC has been working to expand existing course offerings.

But one of the primary limiting factors in setting a concrete timeline for the major is recruiting faculty for the potential health studies department, he said.

But, Nelb said, while new health-related course offerings form “a good foundation,” gaps in global health and medical anthropology still remain.

He added that the five-year joint master’s degree in public health option offered through Yale College and the School of Public Health does not accommodate all the students who are interested in it because it selects only 10 out of nearly 100 applicants.

Laura Chandhok ’08, a history of science, history of medicine major, said she selected her major because it was the closest thing to a public health major she could find.

But she said she found it focused more heavily on historical information than she had hoped.

“I’m a lot more interested in recent changes and trends in health care,” she said, adding that she would have opted for the health studies major if it had been offered. “I think that’s what a lot of people like me who are interested in health issues are looking for.”

But she said she thinks the health studies major, like HSHM, has the potential of becoming, in effect, a “pre-med major,” which would detract from the major’s original interdisciplinary character.

If created, health studies would initially be offered only as a second major, Nelb said.

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