In January 2011, Janet H. Southerland, D.D.S., M.P.H., Ph.D., was named Dean of Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry. Meharry’s School of Dentistry is known for emphasizing comprehensive care that is not contingent on social or economic circumstances, geographical origin, or ethnicity. Graduates have moved on to noteworthy international acclaim, serving society with a special focus on providing care for the underserved. Recently, Meharry was awarded funding for one of four Regional Research Centers for Minority Oral Health in the United States. These research centers aim to improve the oral health of ethnic minorities by expanding research opportunities and strengthening relevant research capacity of minority dental schools.
It has been three months since Dr. Southerland began her service as Dean and she is settling in well to her leadership position. “I feel very much that my previous experiences and my skill set have prepared me to meet the challenges and opportunities of my new position,” she responded recently to an inquiry by the Bulletin of Dental Education Online. “I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to lead a school with the mission and history of Meharry. I believe the President and Board of Trustees have entrusted me with a national treasure and now I have the opportunity to add a new vision to the already rich tradition of this institution.”
When her appointment was announced, Dr. Southerland was thrilled. “This is the most exciting thing that I could ever have imagined, the opportunity to do something like this,” she said in the school’s press release. “I was attracted to Meharry Medical College because of the strong tradition of the School of Dentistry. This is an opportunity for me to bring new vision and new energy and build upon a solid foundation.”
Dean Southerland received her D.D.S. and Ph.D. in Oral Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) School of Dentistry. Her M.P.H. is from the UNC School of Public Health. Her research interests involve the study of the relationship between diabetes and periodontal disease and early detection and interventions for oral cancer. Dr. Southerland is a member of several organizations including ADEA, the American Association of Dental Research (AADR), the International Association for Dental Research (IADR), the Old North State Dental Society, the North Carolina Dental Society, The Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) National Advisory Committee, and the North Carolina Cancer Control Committee.
Dr. Southerland stepped into her role prepared to elevate Meharry’s educational programs to the next level. Over the course of her first year, she planned three major areas of focus: teaching, research/scholarly activity, and service. “Meharry has a motto, ‘Worship of God through service to mankind,’” she explained. “This statement exemplifies the spirit and the mission of our school. In order to fulfill this commitment to our faculty, staff, students, patients, and community, we must be excellent as it relates to how we train and serve.” Dr. Southerland is specifically addressing issues this year that include faculty recruitment, centralization of instrumentation and sterilization, and a simulation lab.
Five dental schools have recently been established in the United States, and another five are in various stages of planning. Dr. Southerland noted that other proposals in the pipeline could result in many more new dental schools in the United States. “This change in the dental education landscape will require that we have programs that are excellent, but also facilities that are excellent in order to attract quality students.” Her five-year plan addresses Meharry’s focus on recruiting, educating, and training potential dentists. “Over the next five years fundraising is a priority, to assist us in having available scholarships to recruit the best and brightest students to Meharry for their dental education,” she said. “We will also be focusing on making sure that our facilities are adequate to continue to provide the most up-to-date educational experiences and training for our students.”
At the same time, however, the state of the national economy crunch has taken its toll on school budgets and indirectly on higher education and future health professionals. “Oh, the economic crisis has affected our budget,” she said. “We, like everyone else, have had to tighten our belt and look for less expensive ways to do business.” Dr. Southerland noted that one of the fallouts of the economic downturn has made it increasingly difficult to recruit faculty. As an institution of higher learning, it has become very challenging for Meharry to compete salary-wise with the private sector.
“The economy has also significantly increased the cost of education in the health professions, resulting in significant financial burdens for graduating students,” she remarked. “This has also contributed to challenges in recruiting and retaining young faculty into the professions. Still, I believe that the health care profession remains extremely popular as a career choice.” That belief is echoed in the Dean’s continued focus on enhancing Meharry as an attractive option for up-and-coming dental students.
One of the avenues Dr. Southerland is addressing is the current “knowledge gap” that exists between faculty and students. With today’s incoming student body being “born digital,” such a gap could be an obstacle to learning in today’s higher education environment. Dr. Southerland agrees. “There is significant aging of dentists across the country, and many are still practicing well into what we would consider their twilight years. The fact that these baby boomers were around long before much of these technological advances were developed really speaks to challenges that our profession is facing in educating today’s students,” she said. Such a gap has created obstacles in using new and emerging technologies in the classroom and clinical areas. Dr. Southerland noted as an example that she sometimes encounters faculty who are not very comfortable with using a computer, resulting in significant challenges in creating lectures and using electronic educational materials and media.
“Deciding to pursue a career in any field requires you to be a lifelong learner. I believe the gap can be bridged by academic institutions as part of the lifelong learning process by ensuring that faculty development is a priority and that training is included that will allow them the opportunity to learn how to use the latest and greatest technologies in the field,” she observed. “The faculty must also be assisted with how to incorporate the knowledge into the clinic and classroom settings. Faculty and students can help to close the gap by working together as a team and exchanging information in this area. Our faculty must learn not to be intimidated by the new advances, but embrace these changes as we strive to enhance the education of our students and the care of our patients.” But it isn’t just on the faculty to shoulder the change. Dr. Southerland said that “our students must learn to be patient with many of us who have not grown up in this age of technology and look for opportunities to help faculty grow. It is part of the circle of life and exchange of information that continues to move our society forward.”
Emerging technologies have begun to transform health professions education. Students today in a variety of disciplines are engaging in interactive learning with experts outside their profession as a routine part of their interprofessional education. Dr. Southerland has recognized the trend as very compatible with Meharry’s overall mission. “It has become very apparent that if we are to provide proper health care for individuals, we must evaluate them as a complete being and not in compartments. In order to do this, a comprehensive approach is required to have the best possible health outcomes,” she stated. “This does not mean just looking at the physical attributes, but other areas such as socioeconomics, mental state, race, gender, etc. How we treat and manage patients involves taking into account the sum of their genetic and environmental make-up.” It is this comprehensive approach to care that requires work across different disciplines, making sure students are well prepared to address the many issues involved in getting someone to optimum health. “It is important that training is not done in silos as well, and that interdisciplinary education is mandatory to ensure we have properly prepared the health care professionals of the future,” she noted.
Dr. Southerland hopes to continue building upon Meharry’s accomplishments in creating successful learning environments in its higher education community. “There are a number of opportunities already on campus created to enhance the learning environment for our students. The S. S. Kresge Learning Resources Center is newly renovated and includes an upgrade to the Meharry library; many of its books have been converted to a digital format,” she emphasized. “Those bookshelves have been removed and the space converted into collaboration rooms for students.”
More importantly, Dr. Southerland believes strong academic partnerships are vital to improve the learning environment. “One of the strengths of Meharry is our collaboration with other schools,” she said. “Health Policy Scholars from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at Meharry are a great example. Students in this program received instruction from professors from Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, and Harvard University, in addition to instruction from Meharry faculty.”
Mentorship is an important tenet in Dr. Southerland’s life. “I have many influential mentors in my life that are too many to name, but I know they were the people who had confidence in me even sometimes when I did not have it in myself. They encouraged me and made sure that I had the resources and opportunities to be exposed to those things that would help me to be successful. They were critical when it was needed and would only accept my very best,” she said. That encouraging environment is something she wants to deepen for Meharry students, as it played an important role in her own life and education. “Looking back, especially given my background as a disadvantaged student, I understand the need to be a mentor and how the smallest bit of encouragement can make a lasting impact on the trajectory of someone’s life.
“I also have learned that being a mentor does not only mean that you help someone become successful, but you must also help them to understand failure and the role it often plays in success,” she continued. “Mentoring is very important in the area of education and the health professions, particularly for students who hail from minority, rural, and underserved/disadvantaged backgrounds. It is important that these students have access to individuals who will serve as role models and expose them to those things that will help them to be competitive and prepared for a career as a health professional.”
Dr. Southerland wants students to understand that one of her objectives at Meharry is to prepare them as future dental education leaders. “Understand that the profession is changing rapidly and technology is at the forefront,” she points out to future students. “It is important that you are prepared to meet the challenges of not only teaching using different models but also in settings that are non-traditional, not necessarily in your backyard. Also, be open and optimistic and know that the passion and dedication that you bring with you will ultimately help to improve health of our communities and our nation.”
As Dean, Dr. Southerland sees her chance to make even larger contributions to not just her profession but also the dental education community. With its mission and history, she feels Meharry is the perfect fit. “What makes me hopeful for the future for Meharry is that it has a tradition of excellence that spans over a century and a mission of service that has been unparalleled in the dental profession.” With the school’s strength and vitality aligning with Dr. Southerland’s ideas and inspirations, the future of Meharry’s students and faculty is bright.