A “Driving Ambition”: Dean Announces End of Her Era at Public Health School

Barbara Rimer

Barbara Rimer, who received the GAA’s Faculty Service Award in 2020, has been dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health since 2005. (UNC photo)

Barbara K. Rimer, who has led UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health for the last 16 years, vaulting it past peers in both grant dollars and national rankings and captaining it through the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, will retire next June.

Rimer shared her news in a letter to Gillings faculty and staff on Monday.

“With personal sadness that a season of life will end, but a clear sense that the decision is the right one, I am sharing with you that I will step down as dean June 30, 2022,” wrote Rimer, who also is Alumni Distinguished Professor at the school. “For the last 16 years, I have awakened every day with a commitment to the Gillings School of Global Public Health — and especially — to its people — You.

“My driving ambition has been to realize the potential of the school to make a difference in the lives of people in North Carolina and around the world — to improve public health and individual well-being and eliminate health inequities across North Carolina and around the world. In doing so, I have aimed for the school to be an outstanding institution (recognized as such by rankings and other measures) and a great place to work and learn — as it has been since its beginning as a school in 1940.”

In the sweeping letter, Rimer struck a forward-looking tone, pointing the school toward both the challenges of the year ahead and for a future without her. The time to “share memories and accomplishments” would come later, she said.

She also made clear that her retirement was her choice.

“No one should be in these roles indefinitely,” she wrote. “I am passionate about the school, its people, and my role as dean. While I would love to serve indefinitely, it will be in the best interests of Gillings to have an orderly transition and an opportunity for new leadership. A new dean will bring fresh ways of thinking and acting. That will make the Gillings School even stronger. This is the cycle of life.”

Rimer, who has been outspoken on campus issues — most recently regarding the handling of the Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA) tenure fight — said “recent events” had not led to her decision.

“We will weather the current storms and headwinds facing UNC-Chapel Hill if we work together, deal with root causes honestly and face the future resolutely, with courage and bold action,” she wrote. “Since I have been dean, we have confronted many external and internal threats. Although painful, we have dealt with them directly and emerged stronger. Our people, the school and university are resilient.”

As the Hannah-Jones controversy swirled, Rimer posted a letter to the Gillings website on June 22, calling on the UNC Board of Trustees to act on the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s tenure application. (The board did so on June 30, granting tenure that Hannah-Jones later turned down.)

“For weeks, I have felt my voice was not needed,” Rimer wrote at the time, “but I am so concerned about what is happening to the reputation of this university, to collective morale, and to people of color at UNC-Chapel Hill that I cannot remain silent.”

Rimer said in her letter on Monday that she had no plans following her retirement.

“We have a lot of work ahead, and it will take our focused attention,” she wrote.

She noted that the school’s faculty, students and staff “have been essential leaders in responding to the pandemic locally, in North Carolina, the US and globally. The Gillings School has demonstrated its value throughout the pandemic and is more relevant and important than ever before.”

Rimer said the University planned a national search for her successor and would share more details at a later date.

“It is a great job, and Gillings has a superb reputation,” she wrote. “The search will attract outstanding candidates.”

The school ranks No. 1 among public health schools in funding from the National Institutes of Health, and U.S. News & World Report ranks it No. 1 among public health schools at public universities in the U.S.

“Until I am no longer dean, I will continue to work every day to keep this school the top public school of public health,” Rimer wrote, adding that she would lead strategic planning efforts during her final academic year at Gillings to ensure that “the school continues to be a great place to work and learn.”

Rimer first came to UNC in 1992 as an adjunct associate professor in public health and became Alumni Distinguished Professor at Gillings in 2002. She was appointed dean in 2005. Rimer also is a senior research fellow at UNC’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research and deputy director for population sciences at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her research pertains to cancer, evidence-based public health, health behavior, health communication and HPV vaccination.

Soon after becoming dean, Rimer secured the $50 million donation from the Gillings family that prompted the school’s renaming, bolstered its ability to invest in innovative public health projects and became a catalyst for attracting additional research funding.

Rimer has received recognition for her research and leadership from the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, among other organizations. In 2008, Rimer was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest achievements in her field. She was appointed chair of President Barack Obama’s Cancer Panel, and President Bill Clinton named her to the National Cancer Advisory Board, where she was the first woman and behavioral scientist to become chair. At UNC, she has been elected to the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Order of the Grail-Valkyries.

During her tenure as one of UNC’s longest-serving deans, Rimer has served on search and review committees for many of the University’s top administrators as well as on advisory panels for programs and academic units. Rimer has championed inclusivity and diversity among students and faculty, and Gov. Roy Cooper ’79 (’82 JD) appointed her to his Commission on Inclusivity.

In her speech after receiving the GAA’s Faculty Service Award in 2020, Rimer said service was a fundamental part of her being, an irresistible force that drew her to its ranks time and time again. When then-National Cancer Institute leader Rick Klausner asked her to become the director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences in 1997, Rimer recalled, she had just received “the grant of my dreams” and didn’t want the job.  She turned Klausner down three times — until he brought up President John F. Kennedy.

“He drove me to the Jefferson Memorial,” she recalled. “We looked across the Tidal Basin, toward the Washington Monument, and Rick reminded me about Kennedy and public service, and how the new division he wanted me to lead could shape the future of cancer control. He said it was my time to serve, and then, I said yes.”

At NCI, she initiated new directions for population health that still guide the nation’s cancer control research goals and helped improve the rate of women getting mammograms through her understanding of genetic predisposition.

Before her time at NCI and Carolina, Rimer was a noted researcher and educator. She co-authored an international reference textbook for public health, Health Behaviors: Theory, Research and Practice, now in its fifth edition. Rimer earned a doctorate in health education from Johns Hopkins University in 1981, a master’s in public health from the University of Michigan in 1973 and a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan in 1970.

Rimer’s work ethic is singular, mirroring a tagline on her school’s webpage that reads, “We’re Gillings. We’re on it.” When she was hired as Gillings’ dean and realized that going to football and basketball games was part of her job description, she brought her laptop to use during timeouts.

“I like fixing things, helping to make our people, school and university stronger, always keeping a focus on the people — our faculty, staff and, especially, our students,” she told the GAA in 2020. “I am a professor and dean, a proudly public university employee and a state of N.C. employee, with accountability to school constituencies, citizens and leaders. Service is fundamental.”

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