Out dean to leave post at Drexel
by Jen Colletta
Oct 11, 2012 | 1867 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Classes are back in session at Drexel University School of Public Health, and its out dean, Dr. Marla Gold, is heading into her last year at the helm on all cylinders.

Gold, 55, will step down — or “up” as she notes, as she is remaining on the school’s faculty — from her post in June.

The position began as an interim one in 2002, at a time when the fledgling school was struggling to right itself.

In 1998, the program’s parent company, Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation, declared bankruptcy. A few months later, the school’s founding dean, Jonathan Mann, and his wife were killed in the crash of Swissair Flight 111.

Four years later, Drexel acquired the school — one of just two public-health schools in the state at the time and the only one in the region.

“The school had been through the unbelievably tragic death of its leader and was emerging out of Chapter 11 reorganization,” Gold said. “It was quite a challenging time.”

When Gold was tapped for the job of leading the new school, she said she was apprehensive about the daunting task — especially since her background didn’t fit that of the typical dean.

Gold was a practicing internist and served as assistant health commissioner for Infectious Disease Control with the city in the early 1990s before going on to head Allegheny’s HIV/AIDS program.

“Among the schools of public health in the nation, the majority of the deans had been living and breathing academic public health — science and research — their entire lives. I’d spent my career in public-health practice but I hadn’t produced the kind of scholarship that is traditional in academic public health,” she said. “I had an M.D., not a PhD. So, on one hand, I was in a known land, but on the other I was in a very strange, new place.”

As soon as she began, she met individually with each of the faculty members — nine-and-a-half at the time — as well as Drexel’s top administrators and health commissioners throughout the region.

She said she read everything she could get her hands on in the field of academic public health and “went on the talk circuit, giving lecture after lecture after public health.”

Within six months, she said she was “scaled right up to understanding” and was able to focus on moving the school forward.

In the past 10 years, the school expanded from 60 students to more than 500 and now employs 41 full-time faculty members and 85 adjuncts. In 2007, it was fully accredited by the Council on Education and Public Health.

The success the school has seen was made possible by widespread and long-term support from Drexel administrators, faculty and staff, Gold said.

“Getting resources from Drexel University was very important,” she said. “Constantine Papadakis, our former president, and our provost at the time, Harvill Eaton, were very supportive and were committed to giving me what I needed to hire faculty, to expand our course offerings, to get administrators in. With that initial flow of resources, students began coming to the school. Our faculty and staff are so passionate about what they do, and good at what they do, that students will follow. Then you get that generation of tuition and off you go. People have pointed to me, saying, ‘under her leadership’ this all happened, and I’ll own that proudly, but in our field, and in my style of leadership, we did that together.”

Among the myriad initiatives launched in the last decade was the school’s Program for LGBT Health, as well as its new online LGBT health certificate program.

Gold — the only out dean at any of the nation’s approximately 50 schools of public health — said she’s always been “out” in her role, which she hopes has empowered students.

“Students can be heard and they can feel seen,” she said. “If you’re gay, lesbian, transgender and I’m giving a lecture on stage and mention something clearly stating that I’m a lesbian — I’m a white, straight woman in many people’s eyes so I sometimes go out of my way to mention the family or use that ‘l’ word — students feel seen. There’s a lot of dignity in that.”

One of the greatest challenges she faced during her tenure was striving to create and sustain authentic community partnerships, what she described as a cornerstone of a Drexel education.

Gold said she has worked to make the school one “without walls” — despite the irony that it is entering the final stages of its move to a new building on Drexel’s main campus.

“Everyone talks about the community experience, and every university in the nation wants it, but you need to figure out how to really do that without the community feeling like you’re studying them and running away,” she said. “Students need to know the science but also the real application because, if not, they will become so distant that they won’t understand the implications of what they’re studying. The school has to be configured so that it has a real connection to the community. That’s what I’ve lost sleep most over in the last 10 years.”

She added that, while it may seem “trite,” one of the most valuable lessons impressed upon her in the past decade is simply to trust your gut.

“No matter how much data and opinions are on the table, in the end you need to just trust your overall sense,” she said. “It sounds easy, but leaders often get swayed by popular opinion or other things and don’t listen to that tiny voice inside them that’s saying something different, and they end up regretting it.”

Gold noted that her role as dean has put her own career into perspective.

While she joked that she is not the type who envisioned entering medicine from the age of 2, she fell in love with the craft when she began studying it — and has learned to appreciate that passion in new ways since.

“I started as a clinical doctor, where you impact the lives of your patients every day, and then moved to faculty and senior faculty and then dean, and I don’t have time to practice now. But now, I get to hire the people who teach the people to go on and do the things that I love to do. It’s like ‘The House That Jane Built.’ On the one hand, I miss doing some of those things but, on the other, it’s unbelievable to realize that your name’s on the diploma and you’re sending these people off to do great things. That legacy phenomenon has been incredible.”

She said she didn’t take on the deanship with a set goal for when she would move on but that, once she surpassed the decade mark, she felt the school could continue moving forward without her.

While she doesn’t have a set goal for the future, apart from staying on the teaching staff at Drexel, Gold said the time was right for the move.

“For me, it was a feeling, a sense of when it was time. And when I started to see that this school can continue to be successful without me at the helm, that made the transition easier to think about. It was a magical moment to know that this entity can continue to grow and do its thing without me in charge and that it doesn’t depend on me in the same way anymore.”

What does depend on her is her family — her wife, Deborah, of 28 years, their son and daughter, and her mother.

Gold said they have been constantly supportive of her work as dean but will welcome the opportunity for more family time.

“I joke with the faculty that, ‘Hey, it’s a rumor that my son is in college and my daughter just started third grade.’ My daughter thought that when the date was announced, it was a done deal, and she came home and said, ‘Wait, I have to wait until fourth grade to see more of you?’ I can’t wait to have more time with them. I used to think, when people would stand up at awards shows and thank their husbands and wives, Oh, give me a break. But after 10 years of doing this work 24/7, and knowing what my family has done to make that possible, I’m so grateful.”

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