UC Berkeley’s public health undergraduate major faces potential elimination

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Update 02/29/16: This article has been updated to reflect information from campus officials, undergraduate program directors of the School of Public Health and students.

The School of Public Health is suspending the spring admissions cycle this year for undergraduate students interested in the public health major, according to a letter posted on the school’s website Monday.

Sent in an email to current and prospective public health majors, the letter states that in light of the campus’s substantial structural deficit, the school is also considering discontinuation of the undergraduate public health major program — a popular major that has a student body of about 440 students and receives roughly 200 applications each semester.

According to the letter, students currently enrolled as declared majors will not be affected by the major’s suspension, meaning they can graduate as public health majors and complete their required courses.

“We are asking ourselves hard questions about what programs to reduce, consolidate, or discontinue altogether if our efforts to generate alternative sources of revenue and improve our operating efficiency cannot keep pace with the budget cuts,” stated the letter, signed by Jeff Oxendine and Bill Satariano, the undergraduate public health major program directors.

As of yet, no decisions have been made regarding whether the major will be eliminated permanently. The letter stated that if the program survives campus budget cuts, the admissions cycle will reopen in either August or December.

“Everything is under consideration,” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “We’re talking about a $150 million deficit … we have to think more out of the box.”

While the undergraduate program is well-regarded, the school faces a “probable major (size) reduction” in faculty and financial support for graduate student instructors and program staff, according to the letter.

Satariano also said that with a number of faculty having recently retired or planning to retire, the school is unsure how many of the positions will be replaced or how new searches will be authorized.

The school anticipates that a final decision on the future of the major will be made this summer or in early fall after administrators consider the impact of final campus budget cuts and academic restructuring.

According to Oxendine, an undergraduate management committee composed of faculty, students and staff from the school will meet from May to August to discuss the undergraduate program moving forward.

“It hasn’t been one of the best days on the job today,” said Sonthonax Vernard, public health undergraduate academic adviser, adding that students were disappointed and dejected by the announcement. “We always tell them to have backup majors in mind, because the major is capped.”

Vernard said popular backup majors are American studies with a focus in health, social welfare and molecular and cell biology.

The temporary suspension directly impacts prospective public health majors such as campus sophomore Elizabeth Li, who planned on applying in May. Li said she has a good backup option but is still troubled by the current situation.

“It’s offset my whole four-year plan because it’s difficult to know whether I should even apply to public health at all,” Li said. “I wish there were ways the school could make room in their budget in other ways instead of abolishing a major that is really important.”

The undergraduate public health major has been discontinued in the past. While the School of Public Health was founded in 1943, it ceased to offer undergraduate degrees in 1968, when the undergraduate program was terminated.

The program was then revived in 2003 as an upper-division major. In 2015, the undergraduate major ranked number one in the nation by USA Today.

Recently, the campus announced that it is also looking into possibly dissolving the College of Chemistry as a potential cost-saving measure.

Mogulof said that while the School of Public Health took this action “out of greater caution,” and that the administration did not instruct the school to eliminate the program, there is a link between the concerns at the College of Chemistry and the concerns at the School of Public Health.

“We have no reason to believe that the School of Public Health has been singled out,” Satariano said. “This is a campuswide issue and in many ways, it is a systemwide issue.”

Satariano said he expects other campus programs will be dealing with similar issues in the near future.

Campus administration has been meeting with the campus Academic Senate leadership for months, Mogulof said, who expects the entire process of balancing the campus’s budget to take four to five years.

Senior staff writer Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks contributed to this report.

Contact Maya Eliahou and Austin Weinstein at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that the administration took action to suspend the spring admissions cycle for the public health major this year. In fact, the School of Public Health made the decision.