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Bringing TC Together

As Deputy Provost, John Allegrante is building bridges for TC throughout Columbia and around the world
By Joe Levine

After its near-collapse during the 1990s, Kazakhstan has emerged as one of the world’s great economic success stories. But growth has come at a price: Release of radioactivity from the country’s 30 uranium mines is virtually uncontrolled, while flawed irrigation projects have decreased the size of the adjacent Aral Sea by 50 percent, causing climate change and erosion of vast swaths of land.  Meanwhile, the country’s rivers are heavily contaminated by industrial metals.

To address such daunting challenges, the Open Society Foundations (formerly the Open Society Institute) has established a higher education support program and an academic fellowship program that enables young scholars and technicians from Central Asian countries to study at major universities around the world, including Columbia.  While John Allegrante, TC Deputy Provost and one of the OSF’s international scholars, supports the work, he believes the Society’s faculty development program, which brings scholars to Columbia, also needs to foster what the biologist Edward O. Wilson called “consilience” -- an understanding of other fields and the ability to collaborate across academic disciplines.

“The problems in some of these countries are so enormous that there needs to be a common framework for addressing societal issues from the different disciplinary perspectives,” he says. With that in mind, Allegrante -- who represents TC on a Columbia-wide committee that he has organized with OSF funding -- is developing a year-long, university-wide seminar that will bring together visiting scholars from all fields to learn advocacy, coalition- and partnership-building skills, and leadership.

Allegrante’s proposed seminar is precisely what the College had in mind when it named him to the newly created post of Deputy Provost in 2009.

“We wanted a faculty member -- someone with a deep knowledge of the University and its history and politics, and also the ability to catalyze interactions between TC and the other Columbia schools,” says Tom James, TC’s Provost and Dean. “John brings all of those attributes to the job, and he has been doing superb work.”

For Allegrante, his new role has been a logical extension of his own interests.

“Much of this is about putting people together, and I like doing that,” he says. “I’ve also done a lot of international work, so there’s a good fit there.”

One accomplishment of which he is particularly proud is this past fall’s launch of the College’s newest department, Education Policy and Social Analysis (EPSA). While many of the faculty who joined EPSA were obvious choices, “we wanted to go beyond the usual suspects and extend the opportunity to anyone who was interested in policy and conducting policy-relevant research.” To that end, Allegrante created an open solicitation for faculty who were interested in joining or becoming affliliated with the new department.  He also provided support to  the newly elected EPSA chairman -- Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education – as the colleagues joining the department began developing a Ph.D. program that has since been moving through the review process at Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“The goal was to get it all done by this fall, and somehow we managed it,” Allegrante says.  He credits that success in part to earlier work led by TC faculty member Sharon Lynn Kagan during the years that she served as the College’s Associate Dean for Policy and Research.

Last year, building on his own interests as Professor of Health Education, Allegrante also created a new Health, Behavior, and Society colloquium series that has spotlighted efforts across TC and Columbia to “look at the connections between biology, human behavior, and the environment.” Speakers in the series have included Andrea Danese, M.D., Ph.D., a visiting faculty member from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, who spoke about how adverse childhood experiences can cause changes at the cellular level that lead to adult depression and anxiety; Karina Davidson, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, who discussed links between depression and premature death in patients with cardiovascular disease; and, most recently, Olajide Williams, Chief of Staff of Neurology and Director of Acute Stroke Services at Columbia University Medical Center, whose topic was “Hip Hop and Public Health: An Unlikely Marriage.”Allegrante is working to create a partnership between Williams and TC, aimed at spreading techniques for using hip hop to promote health and disease prevention while at the same time strengthening literacy among urban adolescents.

Allegrante is also working with faculty at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to develop a new curriculum concentration at TC in medical education. The P&S Scholarly Projects Program will enable fourth-year medical students to conduct a special project at any Columbia school, including TC, and also develop critical skills in curriculum development and assessment.

“This is the perfect opportunity for a leading medical center and a leading education school to do what we should have done years ago,” Allegrante says, adding that several TC faculty members have expressed interest in mentoring a medical student through the program.

Back on the international front, in June Allegrante became TC’s Fulbright Adviser and Fulbright Scholar Program Campus Representative. Thanks in part to his efforts, Columbia University ranks as one of the nation’s top producers this year of Fulbright Students and Fulbright Scholars.  (Top-producing institutions were highlighted in the October 24th digital edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.) In a letter of congratulations to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, Allan E. Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education, acknowledged the “excellent work” of Allegrante, who has himself received two Fulbright awards. 

The Fulbright Program, which is administered through the U.S. Department of State, enables students (undergraduate and graduate) and faculty members to study abroad, as well as for international students to study in the United States. American graduate students who win Fulbrights can either work on a proposed research project or serve as assistants to faculty in other countries as teachers of English as a second language.

As if all that weren’t enough, Allegrante continues to conduct his own research and to serve as editor of Health, Education and Behavior (HE&B), the flagship journal of the Society for Public Health Education.

Two papers published in the December issue of HE&B--including one by U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh and colleagues -- examine the effects of poverty, education and social structure on health and conclude that the nation's compass for health improvement must point beyond diseases to address their root causes and forge new public and private health partnerships.

In an accompanying commentary, Allegrante and Lawrence W. Green of the University of California at San Francisco outline the 40-year history, perspective and skills that enables the health education profession to help address social determinants of public health.

“There’s a definite convergence of my interests in all the things I’m working on,” Allegrante says. “But I’m beginning to understand for the first time that there really are only so many hours in a day.”

Published Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011


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