Magda Peck: a ‘bold, audacious goal’ for a new school

Magda Peck, founding dean of the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, was welcomed by UWM colleagues and community partners at a “Hard Hat” reception March 29. The reception was held at the new school, now under construction on the western edge of downtown. (Photo by Troye Fox)

Magda Peck, founding dean of UWM’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, is excited about the opportunity to build a new school on the strong foundation already established.

“This is an incredible chance to grow something new for Milwaukee and the country,” she says.

Peck, who joined UWM in March, says existing relationships among the school, the City of Milwaukee Health Department, and a broad array of community and academic partner organizations, offer unique promise for addressing public health issues here.

She was impressed by the passion and commitment of UWM and city officials like Mayor Tom Barrett, who interviewed her, she said during a recent event. At one point, Geoff Swain, the health department’s chief medical officer, flew a small plane from northern Wisconsin back to Milwaukee during his vacation to meet with Peck, Health Department Commissioner Bevan Baker and Susan Dean-Baar, then the Zilber School’s interim dean.

The fact that the late Joseph J. Zilber was willing to invest millions in developing a new school of public health also impressed her, she says.

“Milwaukee is a wonderful city, representative of the best and most challenging of urban America,” Peck says. Like other cities, Milwaukee faces complex health issues – infant mortality, teen pregnancy, obesity and chronic disease, complicated by poverty and racism, she says.

An ambitious agenda

Magda Peck chats with Geoffrey Swain (center), chief medical officer, and Bevan Baker (right), commissioner, both of the City of Milwaukee Health Department, at a March welcome reception.

The Zilber School, established in 2009, now offers a growing number of master’s and Ph.D. programs, a certificate program and undergraduate courses. The faculty will double in the next two years, and the school will move to a new home just west of downtown Milwaukee in the Brewery complex later this year.

Its goal is to join the 50 nationally accredited schools of public health in the U.S. In addition, the school has established an unusual partnership with the city’s health department, which will locate some of its research and policy offices within the new school.

Peck, who joined UWM from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is a nationally recognized expert in maternal and child health. Her work has focused on preventive care and the translation of science into effective programs and policies.

She is founding CEO and senior adviser of CityMatCH, a national public health organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of women, children and families in urban communities.

Why Milwaukee?

A number of factors influenced her decision to come to Milwaukee, she says. “It is a sentinel American city, right sized for making change for the better. As Milwaukee fares, so will other cities across the nation for the next 20 to 50 years in urban health.”

She also liked the city’s “can-do” attitude toward change, and the fact that UWM wants to be part of the city’s transformation, she says.

The collaborative work UWM already is doing with local organizations to lower infant mortality is just one example of the multi-organization, multidisciplinary approach that typifies the Zilber School, she says. “Medicine and public health need to work better together to prevent babies from being born too small or too soon, or who don’t live to blow out their first birthday candle.”

She sees strong leadership in health care systems, community organizations and the university as an asset in developing collaborative research. “When we all work together effectively, our research will be translated into fresh and powerful solutions that yield new solutions for old problems.”

“The advantage of being in Milwaukee is that this is where some of the most complex problems are manifest,” she says, driven by incomplete access to healthcare, poverty, deteriorating infrastructure and environmental issues. “The most powerful solutions are not always medical. They require an interdisciplinary perspective that addresses social and environmental determinants of health.”

Having a strong school of public health will help prepare a new generation of competent public health workers, and generate evidence-based solutions that can inform public policy, she adds.

She doesn’t downplay the challenges ahead.

“Of course, it’s tough. But hard is not bad – it’s just hard. It’s going to be a steep climb, particularly in this economic climate. But if not the bold, audacious goal of becoming among the best schools of public health in the nation that will make Milwaukee one of the healthiest cities in nation, why bother even doing it? And so it’s what must be done.”

The Zilber School of Public Health is not “the” answer to Milwaukee’s public health problems, says Peck, “but it can serve as a powerful catalyst in developing knowledge and capacity, policies and resources to change the current dynamic.

“It will serve as a go-to place for cutting-edge ideas and innovation in public health, and bring it to leaders from across the country and around the world. Our research agenda and education performance will be anchored in Milwaukee, but we will reach out to have an impact beyond this city.”