Words of Wisdom: Richard Levinson addresses the 2019 class and reflects on his retirement

May 7, 2019
Richard Levinson

This year’s Rollins commencement ceremony is remarkable not only for its caliber of graduates, but for the significance of this year’s speaker. Richard Levinson, MA, PhD, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health and Executive Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Emeritus, has helped develop, lead, and grow the school from its very earliest days, when it was merely a program operating from a three-bedroom house. As he shares advice and inspires the 2019 graduating class, he’ll also be saying goodbye as he steps into retirement after more than 40 years of service to the university. 

Levinson was recruited to Emory’s Department of Sociology as an assistant professor in 1972 after working at Indiana University on the sociology faculty. At Emory, Levinson quickly made a name for himself, not only for his innovative teaching, but for his genuine curiosity, incomparable work ethic, and knack for collaboration—among his extracurriculars was involvement with a group that was the precursor to Emory’s Center for Ethics. When faculty from the School of Medicine discussed adding an academic program aimed at training candidates for health planning jobs, Levinson was tapped to help map out a curriculum. In 1975, Levinson was among six faculty teaching in the School of Medicine’s Master of Community Health Program, (in Rollins’ current location), which began with a handful of students.

“My office was on the sun porch where I learned to value the benefit of lining the walls with books because it was good insulation during the winter months,” Levinson recalls. 

By 1990, the program had grown substantially and officially became a school of public health. “From the start, Rollins recruited the most gifted scholars to be among its faculty and that’s what makes us a distinguished school. We strive to provide the training that enables our students to become lifelong learners.”

Outside the university, Levinson worked on Senator Edward Kennedy’s staff of the U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and on Representative John Dingell’s staff on the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee as a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow. He also served as Chief of the Behavioral Epidemiology and Evaluation Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Over the years, Levinson’s overall excellence has been recognized with both the school and university’s highest honors including  the Thomas F. Sellers Jr. Award, Professor of the Year, University Teacher Scholar, the Crystal Apple Award, and the Thomas Jefferson Award. He has been a beloved and cherished colleague, professor, and friend who has helped shape the path of not only the school, but thousands of the students, staff, and faculty who have come through its doors. 

Here, he reflects on lessons learned over the course of his illustrious career.

What would you tell prospective students considering attending Rollins?

The skills you pick up in a high-quality MPH program enable you to contribute to changes that potentially enhance the well-being of populations. You can make a living doing good and working with like-minded people sharing your commitment. You can find fulfillment as you take incremental steps toward advancing goals and successfully grappling with challenges that improve the lives of others. You can feel rewarded for mastering the craft associated with your work. As time passes, you can sometimes look back and see progress. It’s not a bad deal, all things considered.

What suggestions can you offer graduating students as they begin their public health careers?

Our graduates must go beyond what happens on the job and become advocates and activists for health in their lives … engaging in politics of the day to advance the well-being of populations. They must become what we might view as public health “professionals” which involves who you are as much as what you do. We hope our new graduates become public health advocates and activists that serve population health both within the agencies that employ them and in the broader engagement of life, always keeping in mind what is required to create a healthier place for all to live.

What are your hopes for Rollins as it looks forward and continues to grow and change as a school?

Rollins should sustain a faculty of scholars whose work is admired by peers so students will learn from their classroom teaching and by becoming collaborators. Active research programs will also enable faculty to grow and both attract and support the most promising doctoral students.

I also hope there are growing opportunities and support for our faculty to enrich teaching across the university. I want faculty to be able to share my joy in teaching undergraduates in the liberal arts. Some faculty may also want to consider teaching across the professions as inter-professional educational programs evolve, which is a strategic goal of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center.  

Given the various business plans among schools for supporting faculty teaching, there should be sources of support to facilitate teaching across the organizational boundaries. Linda [his wife] and I hope to reinforce this though our own gift to Rollins, which we see as also contributing to the university’s strategic priority of making Emory an “academic community of choice.”

What is the thing that you love the most about working with students, faculty, and staff at Rollins?

I learn from teaching and collaborating with students and faculty. Every day I learn more, so by the start of each academic year, I look back on the past year and feel badly about having been so ignorant. 

What will you miss the most about being here full time?

I’ve enjoyed interacting with faculty across the campus and participating in the life of the university since arriving in 1972. The close working relationships with great people like Jim Curran, administrators in the deans’ office, and many of our faculty makes it difficult to withdraw from active involvement. 

As good as we are, things are looking even brighter for the future and it is hard not to be a part of it. Students continue to enroll in record numbers, we are attracting rising stars to our faculty, junior faculty careers are blossoming, faculty and our graduates are becoming national leaders in public health, and generous donors are validating our mission with their inspiring gifts making possible even greater achievements.

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