2006-01-06 / News

Dean fights for USC’s School of Public Health

By Rachel Haynie

By Rachel Haynie 

During a hard–hat tour, part of USC’s Arnold School of Public Health’s recent 30th anniversary events, Delisa Clark, USC Facilities (l), shows Dr. Winona Vernberg, dean emeritus, and Bud Lewendowski, now retired from Sponsored Programs, how the new building will be used once complete. The 105,000–square foot building at the corner of Assembly and College streets is still under construction. It will be the first building of USC’s research campus, Innovista. 
Photo by Keith E. McGraw, Jr., Director of Photography, University Instructional Services.During a hard–hat tour, part of USC’s Arnold School of Public Health’s recent 30th anniversary events, Delisa Clark, USC Facilities (l), shows Dr. Winona Vernberg, dean emeritus, and Bud Lewendowski, now retired from Sponsored Programs, how the new building will be used once complete. The 105,000–square foot building at the corner of Assembly and College streets is still under construction. It will be the first building of USC’s research campus, Innovista. Photo by Keith E. McGraw, Jr., Director of Photography, University Instructional Services.

Fighting for everything her school got in the early years at USC’s School of Public Health endeared dean emeritus Winona Vernberg to her colleagues, then and now. Vernberg recently returned to Columbia to celebrate three decades of progress the school has and is making.

“From talks about creating a school in ’74, things moved quickly,” recalled USC’s first woman dean outside the School of Nursing. “We admitted the first students in the summer of ’75. Many of those first students were already in the workforce; they came back to school because there was such a need for academically–trained public health professionals.”

Jockeying for accreditation, vying for space, and competing for funding were among the first mountains to climb. “Scrounging was one of the things we did best back then,” Vernberg said. “We encountered some resistance from other units on campus because there was not a lot of money. Our budget was low at that time.”

With no space of their own, “We started out in the nursing buildings and were grateful if we had eight or nine rooms. We thought it would be astounding to be in a building of our own; when we got one, we outgrew it very quickly.”

Once the school received accreditation, enrollments began to climb. “We always took care of our students and grew because we encouraged students just out of undergraduate programs who were looking for a field. One thing about public health,” Vernberg said, “there was always a market.”

To existing areas of specialization such as environmental and health science, epidemiology and biostatistics were added as well as health education and health administration, and the school flourished. “Eventually, we added exercise science, and speech–language pathology and audiology. These fields attracted an even broader audience of students from out of state, including international students, and we were able to bring on more faculty.”

The interdisciplinary nature of public health is one factor Vernberg believes has contributed to the school’s reputation and progress. “You tend to get people who specialize in one area, but grants often require input from other areas, so it didn’t take them long to seek each other out. Interdisciplinary work is not only approved but lauded and valued.”

Vernberg’s own success as dean of the school emanated in part from her work in environmental protection and her knowledge of grants as resources. “By the late ’60s, I was doing so much work in EPA on mercury studies on marine animals. I was asked to serve as an expert witness from time to time. They were having a lot of committee hearings at the Washington level, and being in those settings set the stage for a lot of things I did later, and also shaped my thinking on a lot of things.”

 In recent years the school’s reputation for research has escalated, but in the early years it was understanding what grant-awarding institutions and organizations were interested in that enabled Vernberg and her USC colleagues to attract research dollars. Those dollars strengthened the School of Public Health.

“When we were at Duke in the early ’50s, we got our first grant from the Office of Naval Research; they supported us in grants until the late ’60s,” recalled Vernberg, now retired and living in NC with her husband, John. The two started off together as biology and zoology professors, respectively.

 Perpetuating Vernberg’s pioneering efforts, current dean Dr. Donna Richter notes similarities and differences. “Thirty years ago when the school was founded, public health was closely linked with immunizations and communicable diseases. While we are still fighting diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and Alzheimer’s – diseases unknown when our school was founded – we now focus on prevention and helping South Carolinians gain a greater understanding of the issues affecting their health and safety.”

 

 

Return to top