Giovanna Truong

After controversy surrounding the quiet pushing out of former Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund, the School began a slow transition to independence from the School of Medicine, which it had merged into in the 1960s.

On Oct. 26th, 2021, the News broke the story that the University had forced Sten Vermund, former Dean of the School of Public Health, out of his role. The University offered him a non-standard three-year contract instead of his previous five-year one, in what some YSPH faculty believed to be a move to edge him from the position. 

Five-year contracts are the norm across all of Yale’s graduate and professional school deanships; in regular circumstances, if a dean is not offered such a contract, they are asked to vacate their position.

The change was announced a week prior, on Oct. 19th, when University President Peter Salovey wrote in an email that Vermund had decided to return to a professorial position at the School of Public Health. The university-wide email did not include any details on the changes to Vermund’s contract offer. 

Nonetheless, faculty members were quick to accuse the University of pushing Vermund out and expressed concerns about conducting hasty leadership changes in the midst of the pandemic. 

“Was this really the time to leave YSPH without a leader?” Gregg Gonsalves ‘11 GRD ‘17 asked in an email to the News.

YSPH has not been without its difficulties in recent years. The University’s endowment funds a remarkably low percentage of its operating budget compared to its other graduate and professional schools, and the YSPH was in $2.6 million of debt at the time of Vermund’s departure.

While it remains unclear whether the School of Public Health’s transition into a “self-supporting, independent school” is the catalyst or the effect of its recent drama, the optics of the situation make sense: the School’s upgrade feels prescient in the COVID-19 era, especially given its powerful role in the nation’s response to the pandemic.

In Oct. 2020, Vermund noted to the News that YSPH being “financially challenged by the COVID pandemic is a bit of an irony. It’s a bit of a paradox…I really hope we’re still here in three years.”

YSPH has towed an awkward line for the last 50 years, included as one of the University’s seven self-supporting schools while still depending on the School of Medicine for debt repayment and other support.

Now, having regained complete independence,YSPH might more easily muster up the funding and global renown needed to maintain an important position in the public health field and to remain prepared for present and future public health crises.

In a Feb. 24 statement, President Salovey touted a string of endowment-supported funding increases to support the School’s transition. He acknowledged the need to “solidify its financial fooding and eliminate the subsidy that it currently receives from YSM.” 

The endowment contributions Salovey outlined guaranteed support for the School through the next five years but made no mention of continued support thereafter. Public health is not as lucrative a field as those which alumni of other Yale schools might pursue, so alumni will likely continue to have less to give.

YSPH has struggled in recent years to provide adequate financial aid to its growing student body, and student debt remains a forefront concern for students and faculty alike. Moreover, a lower budget precludes YSPH from attracting top-tier faculty, weakening its competitive abilities. 

Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other universities have received enormous gifts to their Schools of Public Health in recent years, further disadvantaging the YSPH by comparison. In the absence of a reliable alumni donation field or consistent endowment support, it is unclear how YSPH will persevere.  Faculty have had to spend precious time crafting grant proposals instead of doing the kind of research a forefront school of public health would hope to in the midst of a global health catastrophe. 

Salovey wrote in his statement that he hoped YSPH’s transition to independence would “support YSPH’s contributions worldwide,” a nod to his own desires for the School to exert a greater global influence. 

Prior to his departure, Vermund, too, had been optimistic about the School’s prospects. In 2020 he hoped potential donors would see the COVID-19 crisis as a strong incentive to donate to the YSPH. His priority was reducing student debt, and he saw “a potentially rosy future for” the School. 

Per a Jan. 19 statement from the YSPH, Vermund will move on to serve as Vice President and then as president of the Connecticut Academy of Science & Engineering, or CASE. It is unclear whether the advent of his new position is related in any significant way to the end of his tenure as YSPH dean. 

YSPH is located at 60 College Street.

Miranda Wollen covers the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Law School for the News; she also writes very silly pieces for the WKND. She is a sophomore in Silliman College double majoring in English and Classics.