Q&A with Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., new dean of the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences
Earlier this year, Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., was named dean of VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. She began her tenure on July 1.
Dean Malat joins us from the University of Cincinnati where she served as divisional dean for social sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. She also founded The Cincinnati Project, a research initiative that connects researchers in the College of Arts and Sciences with organizations that serve marginalized people to conduct research with a direct community benefit, and served as director of the University of Cincinnati’s Kunz Center for Social Research.
As a professor of sociology, Dean Malat’s research focuses on how racial inequity affects the health of people in the United States, in particular how the system of racial inequality affects patients and health care providers’ perceptions of medical encounters. Her most recent research examines how stress and social support over the life course affect birth outcomes. Dean Malat’s academic research on race and health has appeared in top journals including Social Science & Medicine and Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and has been funded by several organizations, such as the National Institutes for Health, the National Science Foundation, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, March of Dimes and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center.
We caught up with Dean Malat to learn more about her academic career, what brought her to VCU and her vision for the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where are you from? What was your educational journey?
I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. At the time, IBM and the Mayo Clinic were major employers. Neither of my parents worked at those places, but I benefited from their presence in my town nonetheless. As major employers, IBM and the Mayo Clinic brought an educated population and strong tax base to the city, which translated into very strong public schools. I received an excellent primary and secondary education.
Like many of my classmates in Rochester, I went to college at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. There, after a couple years of uncertainty, I majored in sociology. I was drawn to the major by the new perspective it offered about the world and how the field engaged with issues of inequality, power, social structures and human behavior.
After graduation, I planned to enter the job market. When I asked a professor to be a reference for a job, he recommended that I consider graduate school. I didn’t know anyone, besides my professors, who had gotten a Ph.D. or worked in a university, but I decided to give it a try.
I ended up selecting the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor for graduate school. Looking back now, I don’t think I understood how strongly the decision would influence my future. My graduate school peers and the faculty at the University of Michigan strongly influenced who I am today, both personally and professionally, and continue to be my friends and mentors.
Your field of study is sociology, and in particular, racial disparities in health. How did you discover this interest?
I was always interested in studying social inequality, but my area of study was serendipitously narrowed to racial inequities in health and health care during graduate school. Dr. David Williams (now at Harvard University) offered a three-course sequence on race and health that began during my first year in graduate school. Through my coursework, my peers and the mentoring of faculty like Dr. Williams, I learned a great deal about race, racism and our health care system.
Over the years, my research has examined how the system of racial inequality in the United States affects patients and health care providers’ perceptions of medical encounters. The findings from my research, and the research of others, is particularly relevant now as we consider the impact of COVID-19 on minority communities. Before the pandemic began, my most recent research examines how stress and social support over the life course affect birth outcomes.
You’ve spent most of your career at the University of Cincinnati. What made you decide the time was right to move on? What attracted you to VCU and the College of Humanities and Sciences?
I began my job at the University of Cincinnati right after graduate school. With 20 years of friendships and history, it was difficult to decide to leave. However, after four years in the dean’s office there, and with my children out of the house, it felt like the time had come for a new challenge.
The opportunity to be the dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU was appealing because its mission aligns with my values. I welcomed the opportunity to lead a large college in an urban research university that serves a diverse student body and that connects to its city. In these ways, VCU is much like the University of Cincinnati. At the same time, the universities diverge in meaningful ways. That VCU is located in the South and that its location played a pivotal role throughout American history is fascinating. I am eager to learn more about this history as a member of the VCU and Richmond community.
How has your past work experience prepared you for your new role as dean of CHS?
Coming from another big college at a big state urban research university has prepared me to be dean at VCU. Some people think that the size of a college like ours is unwieldy, but I feel at home in a large college with a wide range of disciplines. I see how we all fit together to educate students who are prepared for a complex world.
Additionally, in my short time in the College, I see the potential for policies and programs that I worked on at the University of Cincinnati. For example, I can share my experience building university-community research partnerships. I believe that the College can elevate its community-partnered work by sharing the work that is already underway and supporting an expansion of this work. One of the initiatives I worked on at the University of Cincinnati was the Cincinnati Project, a research hub that partnered with local organizations to translate academic work into action that improved people’s lives in Cincinnati.
I see a lot of work like this being done with VCU and the Richmond community already, especially with the REAL Initiative, where some students have had the chance to make an impact on the local community. I look forward to the College and our students contributing even more to the Greater Richmond area, combining research with action.
When you accepted the position, the world hadn’t heard of COVID-19. Now, we are in the throes of this global pandemic. How has that changed – or not changed – your plans for CHS and your view of its mission?
As we look to fall semester, COVID-19 poses a number of challenges to higher education. Our first priority is the safety and health of our community. VCU is developing extensive protocols to minimize the risk of transmission of the virus on campus and to monitor its prevalence. In addition to health protocols that are being established for on-campus research and classes, our faculty are working to prepare quality online courses for students who prefer to take classes remotely. As a newcomer, I have been struck by the depth of the faculty and staff’s commitment to maintaining high standards for research and teaching even in these difficult times.
As the incoming dean of the College, I have been thinking a great deal about the role of the College during the pandemic and the recent protests against racial inequities. My view is that our mission has not changed, but the times demand that we pursue our mission with greater urgency. It is more critical now than it has been for decades. We must identify how we can best support all of the members of our College community and contribute to the city of Richmond. With the vast breadth of expertise in our College community, we have the opportunity to provide education, research and support to the university and the city. At the same time, as we are forced by the pandemic to rethink how we interact with students, we will continue to focus on how their education helps them develop into global citizens and prepares them for the rapidly changing world.
What are you most excited for in the 2020-21 academic year?
I’m excited to see what we build together in the coming year. Higher education and VCU face unprecedented challenges. However, I have met a College community that is undaunted. Faculty, staff, students and supporters are focusing their energy on charting the College’s path through this period of uncertainty. I’m excited to see what we create together.
On a lighter note, I’m a people person. So right now, I’m looking forward to meeting more of our community in person. I met many people when I came for my interview in January, and I have met more people on Zoom in the last several weeks. I am excited to see people in person when it is safe to do so!
Can you tell us one quirky fact about yourself or maybe some of your hobbies?
I love spending time outdoors. My favorite vacations are hiking in the backcountry with a tent, no cell service, beautiful views, and physically exhausted at the end of the day. When I’m not away on vacation, I like to ride my mountain bike, road bike, walk or hike in an urban park. I look forward to exploring the opportunities to be outside in Richmond and the surrounding areas. I’ve never lived near the ocean before. Perhaps I’ll add going to the ocean to the list of outdoor activities I enjoy.