Hopkins public health dean to leave post

Sommer to rejoin faculty in 2005, devote time to scholarly interests

April 27, 2004|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Dr. Alfred Sommer, who has steered the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health through an unprecedented period of growth, said yesterday that he would step down from his position as dean in September 2005.

Announcing his decision in an e-mail to faculty and staff, Sommer said he plans to rejoin the faculty and devote more time to scholarly interests, ranging from nutrition to health policy.

Sommer, who will have served 15 years as dean, said he originally expected to serve only five years, about average for a public health school head.

"More experienced colleagues predicted it would take longer to make a lasting difference - five years to discover what needed to be done and another 10 years to do it," he said.

It turned out they were right, Sommer said.

"I'm certainly pleased and proud of the fact that I believe we have collectively made tremendous advances in all aspects of the school's activities," Sommer said in an interview yesterday.

News of his decision seemed to take many on the faculty by surprise, despite his exceptionally long tenure and casual speculation for years about when he would step down.

To some, the announcement was jarring, coming on the heels of a gala celebration Friday at which the school "rededicated" itself to its mission of education and research. No mention of his plans was made.

"People would stick their head in my office and say, `Huh?'" said Dr. David Celentano, a professor of epidemiology. "That's been the response so far."

The affair - attended by 350 faculty, students, donors and dignitaries - was held inside a new $130 million steel-and-glass building that in many ways symbolized progress under Sommer's leadership.

`A remarkable job'

"I've been here for 30 years, and the last dozen have been unlike anything we had seen," Celentano said. "He's done a remarkable job in improving working conditions, and I think he has been very important getting closer relations between industry and public health."

Celentano called Sommer a "risk taker" who wasn't afraid to try such untested notions as starting a "distance learning" program that enabled students around the world to earn their master's in public health degree largely on the Internet.

Sommer, he said, was also among the first public health leaders to support scientists whose research into HIV and sexual behaviors was attacked by a conservative political group.

"He was really rallying support to say this is ridiculous, unacceptable," Celentano said.

Record of progress

Under Sommer's leadership, the school erased its recurring deficit, grew its endowment from $32 to $135 million, nearly doubled its faculty to some 500 members and revamped its physical plant.

Much of this was made possible by huge donations, unthinkable in previous years. They include more than $100 million each from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, plus another $100 million from an anonymous donor.

Dr. William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University, said Sommer raised the money largely by presenting public health issues in everyday language.

"I think there was a tendency among public health people to speak their own language, to speak in terms of epidemiology and statistics rather than putting it in the vernacular," Brody said.

In recent years, global concerns ranging from SARS to bioterrorism have brought the work of public health scientists to the forefront, he said. "But Al did that before any of that happened," he said.

Sommer is widely known for discovering that inexpensive vitamin A supplements can prevent millions of malnourished infants from dying of disease, particularly measles and diarrhea.

For this work, he received the prestigious Lasker Medical Research Award in 1997.

His announcement gives the university 15 months to search for a successor.

Sommer said he expects that a search committee will be formed and a list of candidates drawn up by the end of the summer. Potential candidates could start visiting the school by fall, he said.

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