The hotel ballroom is full, the round disks of tables spaced just-so to allow movement and mingling despite the roar of 450 voices. In its midst, Javier Nieto is the calm in the storm. Still not even on the payroll on this September morning — his first day was October 31 — he warmly meets college friends, working to make his voice heard above the din.
He waits patiently by the stage, on which are perched four white, modern leather chairs and a single podium, bathed in spotlights, ready to welcome the crowd of health care heavy hitters — his new peers — to the third annual Portland Business Journal Healthcare of the Future event.
The crowd jostles for seats, and plates and coffee are passed as the Journal’s publisher tries to capture the attention of guests. Caterers, still scrambling to get breakfast on every table, drop a plate. Without missing a beat, Javier leaves his post to retrieve it then heads to the stage to make his debut as the new dean of Oregon’s first accredited college of public health and human sciences.
Such is the life of a servant leader.
“I work for you,” he tells faculty during the fall all-college meeting a day later. And he means it.
“My recent experience as department chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reinforced my appreciation about the qualities of a true leader, which is not the same as a ‘boss.’ The way I see it, the dean works for the college faculty, staff and students. The dean’s job is to be a facilitator, to help create an environment where researchers, teachers and learners thrive. In our college that means helping researchers on their pursuit of scientific discoveries to improve population health and well-being and fostering a collegial and respectful environment where our teachers have the resources to guarantee student success.”
He also believes that it is critically important to leverage the connections of the dean’s office to bring other disciplines to work together. “It is very clear to me that practically all of the academic disciplines at the university do work related to public health.
“Give me one sector of the economy or society that does not influence the health of people. Politics, economics, law, environmental sciences, agriculture and engineering — they all impact health. What’s important to me is bringing faculty and programs across the entire campus and beyond to work with us on our research and educational programs.
“In fact, one of the first things I’ll be doing is knocking on doors across the university and connecting with state and local health departments, businesses, health care providers and community organizations to discuss our shared goal of improving population health.”
Servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the essay “The Servant as Leader.” Instead of concentrating power at the top, the servant leader puts the needs of others first and helps them perform their best.
But Javier warns against academic institutions’ tendency to see themselves as the ultimate experts in what needs to be done to improve health. For him, “We at the university have the scientific and research expertise, and that is important, but community organizations are the ones on the ground, doing the work that is needed to keep communities healthy.”
The college is uniquely positioned to assist communities in this effort, he says, in part because of its breadth of scientific expertise, including not only the traditional public health disciplines, but also human sciences expertise in nutrition, kinesiology and human development and family sciences.
The Oregon State University Center for Health Innovation and OSU Extension Service also enhance the college’s ability to engage communities. Health Extension faculty embody the university’s mission to be a university for the people, and that mission was a significant draw for Javier, who sees it extending far beyond Oregon’s borders.
“There is an urgent need for public health and human sciences expertise all over the world. Our program and research expertise can be translated into activities beyond our state and nation. I’m very excited to help grow our Center for Global Health and to give our students opportunities for international experience.”
Thinking globally comes naturally to Javier. Born in Ponferrada, a small town in northwestern Spain, he grew up in Valencia, on Spain’s eastern coast, as the middle child in a family of seven. Two of his siblings would go on to become pediatricians like their father. For Javier, who came of age in the late ’60s/early ’70s in a political environment of unrest, those formative years sparked an interest in social justice and politics.
“Public health is very much a political science,” he says. “This idea is far from new, with deep historical roots going back to Rudolf Virchow, the great German pathologist who more than 150 years ago wrote, ‘Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.’”
Javier’s career in public health, however, wouldn’t begin until after his medical training. Following medical school and a residency in family and community medicine in Spain, he set out to earn his master of public health degree in Cuba. “This was a really transformative experience for me,” he says. “It reinforced my interest in public health and the impact it can have on communities. It convinced me that with the right public health and primary health care approaches you can do a lot to preserve the health of the population, even if resources are limited.
“I gravitated to public health not because I didn’t like clinical practice, but because I find it incredibly important and satisfying to know that my work may have a broader impact on the health of the population as a whole, and even more so that we are training students who will be the next generation of public health and human sciences professionals.”
Still, his conscience nags. Poverty. Lack of access to education and health care. Food insecurity. Human suffering. “The injustice and knowing there are so many people — even in the wealthiest country in the world — who lack the basic resources they need to lead healthy lives. The fact that there are resources that if properly used could alleviate many of these conditions. It certainly motivates me to work even harder.”
And here he is: Oregon. An opportunity to make a difference in a new way. The latest stop on his life journey.
“I was very drawn to the vision of the college — by the energy and the quality of its people,” he says. “This position is exciting, and I feel good about the opportunity and potential that this college has. It’s in a good position to make a meaningful impact for Oregon and as a model for those who might follow. I’m enthusiastic about working to help fulfill our mission of lifelong health and well-being for every person, every family and every community. And to work toward ensuring our students’ success and to connect and engage with alumni and friends.
“I think the best is yet to come.”
What he’s reading
He is currently reading “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs. He loves fiction, particularly mysteries, and two of his favorite authors are Paul Auster and Ian McEwan. Two books that impacted him in recent years are “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese and “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry.
How he stays healthy
A longtime runner, he ran a marathon two years ago. He bikes to work as frequently as he can.
What’s on his playlist
“Almost everything.” Most of the time he listens to classical music or opera; Puccini’s “Turandot” and Machler’s symphonies are among his favorites. He also enjoys rock and pop music, including The Beattles, Regina Spektor and Wilco.
Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic “The Apartment,” which won an Oscar for best picture. “The movie is two hours and five minutes long. Two hours and two minutes are about human misery, but in the last three, everything turns around. It’s about the resilience and triumph of the human spirit.”
Music, reading, running and cooking. “Spaniards love their cooking tradition. You could say I cook the best paella in Corvallis.”
What’s on his TV
In addition to soccer and the news, he’s recently started watching TV shows, including “Breaking Bad;” “Borgen,” a drama about a woman elected prime minister of Denmark; and the British series “Happy Valley.”
He and his wife, Marion, have three children. Diego is interested in cultural anthropology and attends Lewis & Clark College in Portland. His fraternal twin, Miguel, studies architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. Daughter Lucia is passionate about soccer and just started her first year at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
His happy place
Asturias, in Northern Spain.
Little known facts
- He met Fidel Castro – twice – while studying in Cuba.
- He sang with the Madison Symphony Choir while in Wisconsin and plays viola.
- He’s an amateur photograph with an Instagram account.
Dean, College of Public Health and Human Sciences, Oregon State University
Professor and Chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences, School of Medicine and Public Health; inaugural Helfaer Professor of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health (associate professor and director of the general epidemiology program until 2002; adjunct professor 2002–2009)
PhD, Epidemiology, The Johns Hopkins University
MHS, Epidemiology, The Johns Hopkins University
MPH, Institute for Health Development of Havana, Cuba
Diploma in Biostatistics, University of Barcelona, Spain
Residency in Family and Community Medicine, General Hospital of Segovia, Spain
MD, School of Medicine, University of Valencia, Spain