Imagine you’ve been offered the job of leading a diverse college at a major research university. It’s 2022, enrollments are slumping nationwide, budgets are declining, students’ needs are increasing, social media is straining the nation’s collective fabric, “the great resignation” is upending staffing, and people are emerging from a pandemic feeling lonelier, angrier and more disconnected than ever before.
Would you take the job?
Brian Primack, MD, PhD, EdM, MS can’t wait. And he has the administrative experience, academic credibility and temperament that make one think he might just succeed.
Some deans are builders, and others stabilizers. Brian, a family physician and public health researcher, ultimately is a caregiver, endlessly curious about humans in body, mind, heart and spirit. He might be, as they say, just what the doctor ordered.
“I want to help create an organization where we are healthy in the biggest sense,” he says. “Our body—our finances, our structure, our communication and our function—are one piece of the puzzle. In terms of mind, I want our people to feel that they are creative, challenged, interested and learning. In terms of heart, I envision a warm atmosphere where people feel good about their community and socially connected. Finally, in terms of spirit, I want people to be proud of their college and feel they are making a meaningful difference in the world.
“I want to help create an environment where people feel they can trust each other and that we are all on the same team. I’ve learned through my work in administration and research that it’s very easy—especially in a large institution—for there to be misunderstandings and miscommunication. I want us to have a base of trust and warmth that helps us navigate all the inevitable challenges and questions that arise.”
All roads led to Oregon State
Brian’s winding career path has taken him through each of the disciplines represented by the college, from human development and family sciences, in which he earned his master’s degree, and later a medical degree in family medicine, to public health and a focus on health promotion and disease prevention, including nutrition and physical activity, as well as research on tobacco and the media’s effect on mental health.
His focus on family medicine, he says, “enabled me to think broadly about how to keep individuals, families and communities as healthy as possible.” It’s this link to communities that gets him excited about his new role.
“One reason the college is so compelling is because of its organic link to the community,” he says. “If you’re a modern physicist, you probably want a brand-new particle accelerator ready to be used in experiments. For us in public health and human sciences, the dream particle accelerator is actually an Extension network that helps us connect to people and communities. This network can help us learn from different communities what they need, and it can help us design, implement and test innovative interventions right where they’re most urgent.”
Throughout his journey, he has steadily learned more about administration and what it means to lead.
“My first major administrative post, in my mid-20s, was dean of students for more than 1,000 teens. Other administrative roles have included director of a research center, assistant vice chancellor, and dean of the Pitt Honors College in Pittsburgh. But my most recent administrative role has been dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. This role helped me hone my ability to manage large programs, budgets, human resources issues, fundraising, buildings, accreditation, finance and much more.”
His approach to leadership, he says, is inspired by former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, who said, “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.”
“One thing I like about this view is that it’s about everyone in an organization lifting up everyone else. If we’re all unlocking each other’s potential, we’re all going to rise together rather than being in competition.
Another thing I like about it is that it means you don’t need a fancy title to be a leader. If you help someone become better, you’re a leader, no matter what it says on your business card—or even if you don’t have a business card.”
This aligns with his personal motto: “Multiply joy. Divide grief.” In fact, he wrote a book about that balance, “You Are What You Click,” which advises us to be as selective, positive and creative as possible when it comes to using social media. His interest in social media came from observing its effect on those around him.
“Sometimes it was positive, and sometimes it was negative,” he says. “It seemed like an important area where there had been insufficient work done to help people optimize how to manage this important and potent exposure.”
Listen, learn, act
“I’ll have a tricky balance in the first 100 days,” he says.
“On one side, it’s important to take careful and sufficient time to listen, assess and learn during that time.
On the other hand, I sense that people in the college are eager for action around several key issues. It will be challenging to balance the need to sufficiently assess with the need to act when needed.”
One important goal, he says, will be addressing the college’s enrollment.
“The state of Oregon, the U.S. and indeed the world need more professionals going into various fields related to health, wellness and human services. We’ll get there by demonstrating to OSU students that we can prepare them for important careers that will help them do good for the world while also enjoying themselves and making a good salary!”
One of his biggest concerns is that many public health and human sciences solutions work for some, but not all.
“This is why I like the college’s vision statement so much: ‘Lifelong health and well-being for every person, family and community.’ The words ‘for every’ are critical.
The response to COVID was a perfect example of how sometimes our solutions don’t work for everyone. In the United States, those who are African-American, Latinx or Native American were about twice as likely to die from COVID compared with Caucasians. When I lived in Northwest Arkansas, people from the Marshall Islands made up just 2% of the total population, yet at one point during the pandemic they accounted for 19% of all COVID cases. We need to understand better exactly why these kinds of disparities exist and what we can do to eliminate them.”
With the college’s vision as a guide, he’ll also draw on skills picked up during his acting days to achieve his goals of increasing enrollment and supporting students’ needs and those of faculty and staff, giving particular care to helping them find meaning and connection.
“What I loved about acting was really trying to understand someone else — what they are thinking and feeling. It’s only after you go through that process that you can play someone else on stage in an authentic and meaningful way. I think that those years of trying to understand others helped me become a better doctor and teacher. Similarly, I think it’s helped me become a better administrator and leader.”