As part of his goals as the new president, UNM President Robert Frank plans to establish a College of Public Health that will offer undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees to students.
Frank said UNM offers a master’s degree in public health that has been successful but still needs improvement. He said that if the University approves his proposal, it would be the first public health college in New Mexico.
“We’ve been running that program for a number of years and it’s been very successful,” he said. “But a college provides … much broader training on public health. This is where we’re planning to go.”
Frank said that at 21 percent, New Mexico has a comparatively high rate of uninsured patients. He said a college of public health at the University could address this problem.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 16.7 percent of people in the United States were uninsured in 2009. According to the bureau, about 26.1 percent of people in Texas were uninsured, the highest rate in the country. Florida and New Mexico followed at 22.4 and 21.7 percent, respectively.
Frank said that because New Mexico has a diverse population, some people, including undocumented immigrants, do not have enough access to health care. He said many New Mexicans lack basic vaccinations and are more prone to various diseases.
“Some parts of our community have high rates of diseases like diabetes and hepatitis C,” he said. “There are so many different cultures that live here that are not equally prepared in their immunization statuses.”
Frank appointed Family and Community Medicine Professor Deborah Helitzer to lead the public health college’s planning process.
Helitzer said that because 57 UNM faculty members have master’s degrees in public health, the University will not have difficulty finding qualified teachers. She said the college will require a new building, but that a specific site for the college or a cost estimate cannot yet be determined because the University is waiting to receive planning money from the Legislature.
“To get an accredited college takes about five years,” she said. “President Frank is going to request planning money from the Legislature. If we get that planning money, we are going to proceed with development of a plan.”
Helitzer said New Mexico does not have a sufficient number of public health workers so the project will strengthen the state’s public health workforce.
“The reason to establish a college of public health is … to develop public health workforce and reduce health disparities in our communities,” she said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for UNM and for other universities in the state.”
Frank said that earlier this year, the state Legislature passed a memorandum asking UNM and NMSU to address the need for a college of public health in the state. He said the memorandum has already gained support from the Department of Education.
Frank said he has already spoken to members of the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico (ASUNM) and the Graduate and Professional Students Association (GPSA). He said so far, students have had positive reactions about the project.
ASUNM President Caroline Muraida said she supports the plan for a college of public health because it would improve UNM’s academic reputation. She said that although the project is still in its preliminary stages, it will make students’ diplomas more valuable.
“When you look at changing an aspect of academic curricula, you really delve into what a degree would mean to a student once they leave the University,” she said. “Bringing a school of public health to the University is a value-adding project.”
Muraida said that although it may be expensive, the project is a good investment.
“Anytime we’re talking about higher education, we’re talking about investments,” she said. “It just depends on the kind of investment. A school of public health is a great investment.”