The University of Iowa College of Public Health named Mark Vander Weg the new department head of Community and Behavioral Health, effective July 1. In his new position, Vander Weg said he plans to focus on issues of health equity and social justice, amid continued spread of the novel coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests.
UI College of Public Health Dean Edith Parker said there will be a meeting this week to discuss Vander Weg’s goals for the position.
Parker said Vander Weg’s responsibilities as department head include helping faculty and staff in their research efforts and developing a quality curriculum for students.
The search for a new Community and Behavioral Health department head took two years, Parker said, since her own appointment as the college dean in 2018. An initial search in 2018 was unsuccessful, she said, but a second search that began in summer 2019 led the college to three candidates for the position. In the interim, Rima Afifi served as the department head.
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Afifi said the College of Public Health wanted someone with strong research skills and a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
“We wanted somebody that was able to mentor faculty and had really strong research skills,” Afifi said. “We wanted a department leader that was as committed as the rest of the faculty to the strong core values of public health — community engagement, participation, health equity, and social justice.”
Vander Weg stood out because of his dedication to health equity and social justice, Parker said, as well as his research experience with tobacco.
“He has a really strong commitment to enhancing the DEI efforts in our department,” Parker said. “He brings really strong research skills that align with our area of public health, which is thinking about creating conditions for people to live healthy lives.”
Due to the public-health concern surrounding COVID-19, Vander Weg said the Community and Behavioral Health department will look at ways to incorporate learning from the pandemic into coursework and research.
“We’re going to be involved in addressing ways we can help the community respond to this — help to protect communities and limit the further spread of COVID,” Vander Weg said. “So much of the response is going to involve a behavior change — physical and social distancing, mask wearing, and proper hygiene.”
Because of Black Lives Matter protests and the College of Public Health’s existing emphasis on social justice, Vander Weg said the department hopes to improve in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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“We have a double pandemic,” Afifi said. “We have the pandemic cause of COVID, and we have the continued pandemic of racism. I think the department is definitely going to be looking at both those pandemics and how we can bring those into the classroom, bring those into our research, and bring those into our practice of public health at all levels.”
Despite the unique challenges of assuming a leadership position amid both protests and coronavirus, Vander Weg said he is excited for the opportunity.
“We’re so excited to have Mark join us and we’re really looking forward to working with him to continue to uplift the department, its faculty, its staff, and students,” Afifi said. “But more importantly to really make a difference in people’s lives.”