Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Curtain call for a founding father

Dick Levinson retires

By Sylvia Wrobel

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Dr. Richard Levinson discovered medical sociology as a college student. Beginning in the early 1970s, when Levinson was a young sociology professor at Emory College, public health discovered him. At the time, the words public health were not in his vocabulary, and neither he nor his Emory colleagues foresaw that what they were doing would evolve into one of the nation’s top five public health schools. At each step of the way, however, for the next four decades, Levinson was there, inspiring faculty and students, building programs, and always, always, doing what needed to be done.

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This spring, Dick Levinson, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health and executive associate dean for academic affairs emeritus, retired after more than 40 years at Emory, in a career including the entire history of Rollins and its antecedent community health program. Rollins Dean Jim Curran feted him as one of the “founding pillars of the school, an inspiring teacher, a dedicated administrator, and a major force in helping Rollins build programs and faculty renowned for exemplary teaching and research.”

It was only fitting, added the dean, that Room 1000 in the Claudia Nance Rollins Building, widely considered to be the best classroom in the school, the one where Levinson had done most of his innovative teaching in recent years, would be named in his honor. Levinson himself, together with wife, Linda, added to what Curran called his “tireless advocacy for faculty” by establishing the Richard Levinson, PhD Teaching Fund for Faculty Support, focused on interdisciplinary teaching across school boundaries. Appreciative faculty and alumni are helping the fund grow.

Levinson’s public health story began soon after he joined Emory College’s sociology faculty in 1972, drawn to the school in part because of research opportunities with medical school colleagues.

When faculty from family and preventive medicine decided to create a master of community health program to train health planners, they asked Levinson to develop and teach the behavioral science component. “Funded out of the medical dean’s back pocket,” as Levinson recalls, the program nonetheless took off. Student enrollment soared. CDC staffers, including then director David Sencer, often joined the mostly part-time Emory faculty. In 1978, Levinson moved his primary appointment to the medical school. A few years later, he and his community health colleagues realized that what they were doing was hard to distinguish from what was happening nationally in the growing field of public health, words now firmly in Levinson’s vocabulary. They received accreditation as a public health program and began offering Emory’s first MPH degree. By definition, says Levinson, he had become a “public health academic.”

A Robert Wood Johnson Fellowship in the nation’s capital awakened an interest in health policy and the nuts and bolts of how it was created. In 1986, Levinson spent a year and a half at the CDC as acting chief of Behavioral Epidemiology and Evaluation. Under William Foege’s leadership, public health at the CDC was expanding rapidly in chronic disease, prevention, violence, and other social problems—issues where health and behavioral science meet. “That year was like an internship for me,” says Levinson. “That’s when I learned what public health really was—and what we were preparing our students to do.”

He would continue as a sociology professor, medical sociologist in the CDC’s Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, adjunct professor in community and preventive medicine, and a researcher with colleagues in medicine and law. But in 1990 his primary focus became the newly created school of public health, headed by Dean Raymond S. Greenberg. Housed in rented quarters, the school wouldn’t get its Rollins name, much less its beautiful buildings, gifts from the Rollins family, for several years. Looking back, he says, it might have been seen as a risky investment, but nonetheless he and the small core faculty took ownership of the fledgling school and poured in sweat equity. Lots of it. Teaching. Developing a curriculum. Creating programs, policies, and procedures. Recruitment. Faculty development, promotions, and tenure applications, and the dreaded accreditation process.

image of Levinson taking a photo in a classroomDick Levinson in Claudia Nance Rollins Room 1000, which is being renamed the Richard M. Levinson, PhD Classroom in his honor. Levinson retired after more than 40 years at Emory.

It was hard—and exhilarating—and Levinson would keep doing all of it for the rest of his career.

A master at collaboration, he took full advantage of the university’s race to become a major research institution following the $100 million gift from Robert W. Woodruff in 1979. He helped develop and cement unusually good working relationships between public health, medicine, nursing, law, and other parts of the university. He helped design and implement joint appointments and programs across campus and with the CDC, The Carter Center, and other public health institutions.

In addition to past students and faculty whose careers he has helped advance, Levinson is most proud of programs he created, beginning with an undergraduate study abroad program at the University of London to compare the U.S. and British health systems. He was critical in developing the four-plus-one program (where students begin taking MPH courses as seniors in college, then finish the graduate degree a year after their baccalaureate) and of the dual MD/MPH and PhD/MPH degree programs. He takes special pleasure in having created a post-doctoral MPH program that aims behavioral science at public health problems.

Over the years, Levinson has received much recognition at Emory, including the Charles Howard Candler professorship, University Teacher Scholar, Crystal Apple Award, and the Thomas Jefferson Award. He had numerous job offers, but he always laughed. “Why would I leave? I have every imaginable job here.”

Levinson tried to retire before, most recently last year, but Curran asked him to stay on as emeritus dean while once again steering the school through the complex waters of re-accreditation. That also allowed time for a smooth transition of leadership. In 2017-2018, Levinson began sharing the associate dean’s duties with Kimberly Jacob Arriola, professor of behavioral science and health education and NIH-investigator, handing over larger and larger increments to her until last year, when she took over the title and all its responsibilities.

Though he will be retired, he’ll still be keeping an eye on the school and the faculty he loves. Levinson says that the miracle that is Rollins came about in part from the vision of leaders like Charles R. Hatcher Jr., MD, vice president for health affairs and director of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center at the time of the school’s creation; major gifts from two generations of the Rollins family; and support from the university and the CDC. He is proud to have chaired the search committee that brought Jim Curran here as a transformative dean. But the “core element,” he says, “the thing that got us here and has every indication of sustaining us onward, is the faculty, its talents, dedication, and willingness to do things both compensated and uncompensated.”

Although much too modest to do so, he could be describing himself.

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