CORVALLIS, Ore. — Oregon State University is one of seven institutions nationwide to receive a new grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create and implement reforms that make public health academic programs more equitable.
“As a land grant university, we have in our mission a goal of reaching every community throughout the state,” said Jonathan Garcia, associate professor and director of OSU’s Global Health program. “We are really tapping into what our vision and mission are and trying to redress some of the harm that the university and the laws in this state have done to people of color. Part of redressing that harm is making the university truly accessible and welcoming to people of all races, colors and all walks of life.”
The college has brought together a 10-person guiding team of faculty, graduate students and external partners who will identify which reforms are most necessary and then work to implement them across the college and the university.
This effort is partly in response to a letter public health graduate students wrote to college leadership following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, calling for stronger condemnation of racism within the college along with increased instruction on health disparities and culturally competent care for patients from marginalized communities.
Instructors within the college struggle with how best to tackle topics that are often deemed “too political” but are central to addressing disparities within public health, especially for immigrants, sex workers, trans people and others whose access to care is extremely politicized, Garcia said.
“We need to learn how to have these conversations in public health. Public health is affected by the political determinants of health that determine access and rights, which are integral to providing health to all people and eliminating health disparities,” he said. “It’s a part of white supremacy to say it’s ‘too political’ to talk about the experience of being a person of color.”
Including graduate students in the guiding team aims to ensure that their voices continue to be heard, said Kate MacTavish, an associate professor and director of equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives within the college.
“One big lesson we’ve learned is this idea of ‘inclusive excellence,’ which is such a big goal at our university. It really means that you are engaging with those who will be most affected by policies and practices as you’re crafting those policies and practices,” she said.
The guiding team will serve as a hub, connecting key faculty, students and administrators across the university, and will also provide opportunities for the college’s leaders to be more transparent about updating students on the equity and inclusion work currently underway.
MacTavish and Garcia are planning reforms to better allow faculty of color to succeed in the promotion and tenure process, which most commonly requires developing an independent research program. But research that focuses on historically marginalized communities, including communities of color, often depends on years of prior relationship-building within those communities, they said.
“In our current promotion and tenure approach, we don’t always give folks credit for all the work that goes on before you end up with data and findings. We tend to only focus on publications as evidence of productivity and contribution,” MacTavish said.
This includes researchers in the OSU Extension Service, who engage in community-based work across the state but find it much more difficult to get that work counted as part of the promotion and tenure process, she said.
The grant money will pay a portion of some members of the guiding team’s salary, along with stipends for other members of the team, so they can carve out time in their regular schedule to devote to working on the grant’s reforms. It will also create a project coordinator position and pay for travel so members of the team can meet with other grant recipients from around the country.
“This is the kind of work we’ve been wanting, wanting, wanting to do; there’s been initiatives trying to move us in this direction, but it’s going to be really valuable to be able to directly support faculty and students and our entire guiding team,” MacTavish said.
About the OSU College of Health: The college creates connections in teaching, research and community engagement while advancing knowledge, policies and practices that improve individual and population health in communities across the state and around the world.