The College of Public Health Building as seen on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (James Year/The Daily Iowan)

Guest Opinion: Public higher education is vital to health of Iowa’s communities

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A disinvestment in public state universities signifies a disinvestment in programs that promote the health of Iowans.

A tradition of strong support for public higher education has allowed the state of Iowa to create top-tier academic and research institutions that are closely tied to our state’s identity and aspirations. Through our public universities, Iowans have expressed their commitment to outstanding learning opportunities, world-class cultural programs, vibrant economic development initiatives, and renowned health care facilities. Our public universities are invaluable resources that strengthen Iowa and position our state to meet the challenges of the future. 

Less visible but just as vital to Iowa’s values and our common future are the array of activities and services that help to sustain the health and wellbeing of Iowans in their own communities. Through our educational, research, and service commitments, the College of Public Health serves as a critical bridge between what we know and what we do. Public-health faculty, staff, and students collaborate with experts from across many disciplines – agriculture, engineering, law, medicine, business, social sciences, and more — to translate knowledge about what works to promote good health at the individual and community level. 

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The college’s undergraduate, graduate, and certificate training programs promote the health of communities by preparing graduates who are trained to address the root causes of diseases and injuries and, whenever possible, to develop effective prevention strategies. Today, these public professionals are strengthening Iowa communities through their work as substance-abuse specialists and epidemiologists, food-safety inspectors and hospital administrators, and laboratory scientists and veterinarians.   

Programs such as the Iowa Cancer Registry reflect the College of Public Health’s population-based approach to health. For more than 40 years, registry personnel have carefully tracked and reported cancer incidence, survival, and mortality among Iowans. Because of the registry’s work, we know that in 2017, more than 17,000 new cancers were diagnosed among Iowa residents and 6,200 Iowans died from cancer. The commitment to gather these data, and the expertise of the registry staff who analyze and manage it, are essential public-health resources that help frontline doctors and patients across Iowa better understand the causes, prevention, and control of cancer.

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In 2015, the College of Public Health began an initiative to directly engage with communities throughout Iowa to support local efforts to promote health and community wellbeing. The Business Leadership Network Community Grant Program has worked with local leaders to keep at-risk youth active and safe in Fort Dodge, combat food insecurity in Fairfield and Ottumwa, promote physical activity for seniors and people with disabilities in Centerville, and support workplace wellness in Mason City. In each of these communities — and in all of the 17 Iowa communities that have participated in this program — the projects have been identified as priorities by local residents and generated matching funds from local nonprofit, private, and public entities.

There are many more examples, of course, and they are found in every area of our comprehensive university. Programs connecting the university with residents statewide – improving health, spurring creativity, and strengthening communities — are among the proudest hallmarks of the world-class academic and research enterprise that generations of Iowans have built through care, effort, and sacrifice.

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As we face today’s challenges, let us remember those earlier Iowans and the confidence they placed in the unique power of higher education and a spirit of service to overcome daunting obstacles. Our public universities remain powerful engines to help us move forward successfully through uncertain times. Continued support for these remarkable institutions is vital to securing a bright future and the highest possible quality of life for all Iowans.

— Keith Mueller, Ph.D.

Interim Dean of the UI College of Public Health

Gerhard Hartman Professor of Health Management and Policy

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