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Dr. Michael Forster

HP&R reorganizes and launches planning effort

A new team of administrators in the School of Human Performance and Recreation – the largest unit in the college, with approximately 1000 undergraduate and graduate majors across seven professional areas – was installed in November, and is doing a bang-up job.

Nancy Speed, Gary Krebs, and Scott Piland, all veteran faculty members with deep USM roots, are working well both in relatively distinct functional areas – student success, curriculum and assessment, and faculty development/research promotion, respectively – and as a team bearing collective responsibility for realizing the instructional and research missions of the school.  (If there’s a weak link in this team, it’s me, serving this year as acting school director after our new director hire fell through.  But that’s another story….)

The reorganization of administrative operations is a major step in moving the School of HP&R forward.  Another big one – in fact crucial, in my view - is underway in the form of a strategic planning effort.  Starting off with faculty contributions to a SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) analysis, this effort kicks into high gear tomorrow, when Gil Reeve, a facilitator with the American Kinesiology Association, leads a daylong planning workshop with all members of the corps of instruction.

Ann Blackwell

Brand New Endings

One of the best things about the start of a new year for me is the opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future.  Although we cannot change mistakes we made this past year, we can certainly learn from them.  Although we will not control everything we face in 2014, we can still identify and diligently pursue noteworthy goals.  I like the quote credited to Carl Bard.  He said, “Although no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.”

In higher education, we have the distinct privilege of contributing to a “brand new ending” for each of our students by offering them the lasting benefits of a college education and degree.  What we do is important.  In fact, the systemic impact of a college degree is well documented.  A college degree benefits individuals, and in turn, families, communities, and our state by the positive impact it has on employment, salary, health, quality of life, and the economy.

Contemplating on the impact of our work serves to reaffirm the commitment of the College of Education and Psychology (CoEP) to vigorously support our students to be successful.   We intend to do everything possible in 2014 to offer each of our students a “brand new ending” available through a college degree.  Will it be challenging?  No doubt.  Will it require everyone working together?  Absolutely.  Will it change the landscape of Mississippi if we maintain our resolve?  That is definitely the plan.

Happy New Year!

Dr. Michael Forster

Social Work graduates progressive change agents

Following are remarks I made at the School of Social Work’s pre-commencement recognition ceremony on December 12:

Good evening.  For quite a long time now, I have been fond of saying that Social Work is the “greatest profession in the world,” for two reasons:

  1. Social workers have both a mission and an ethical responsibility to change the world for the better, AND
  2. They have the tools – the knowledge, the skills, the values – to do it.

Do we – does the state of Miss, does the U.S., does the world? – need social workers today?  You bet!  In fact, the need for social workers fired by the mission to change the world for the better, and armed with the tools to do it, has never been greater.  The challenges facing us today are – without exaggeration – enormous.  Poverty rates are soaring, unemployment remains much too high, homelessness and hunger are widespread.  The wealth inequality gap in the U.S. is greater today than any time since the 1890s.  In Mississippi, fully 1/3 of our children – disproportionately children of color – are poor.  Hundreds of thousands go without accessible and affordable health care, with strong political resistance to taking advantage of opportunities to extend it to the poor and the near-poor.  Social services have been cut, cut, and cut again, as the result of a long-running public budget crisis.  Individuals, families, and communities are under growing stress as available support and resources diminish.  Now, you may have noticed a very recent “thaw” in the Washington gridlock around budgetary matters – evidently no one wants another government shutdown, and this is a good thing – but those pushing for “austerity” measures which would further shred our already weak social safety net are still calling too many shots in the ideological wars being waged.

So that’s the bad news. But there is good news too, fortunately.  The good news is that across the country (and the world), we see progressive movement and reaction, even resistance, to much of the bad stuff happening.  We see challenges to cuts that hurt the poor and disadvantaged.  We see demonstrations against destruction of the environment, new and well organized efforts to raise the minimum wage, to extend unemployment benefits, to increase health care access.  We even see very innovative and creative efforts to “reinvent” community and political economy – to form housing cooperatives, for example, and self-reliant economic arrangements of various sorts, to establish democratically run worker-owned businesses, to repossess public land for common purposes, to produce food and energy on a localized basis so that communities can get out from under corporate control and “go green” on their own.

This is good, and social workers need to be involved, deeply involved.  Social work needs to be part of progressive movements to democratize, to share wealth, to re-include and empower the excluded, to save the planet from ecological degradation.  It needs to form part of the resistance to forces of destruction, inequality, oligarchy, and exploitation of vulnerable populations.  In fact, nothing less than leadership in such efforts should be asked of us, because nothing less will do if we are to remain faithful to our heritage, our mission, and our ethical commitments to work for justice and a better world – a more fair, more inclusive and egalitarian world.

So graduates, this is your charge, to stand up and stand out, to lead in making progressive change. It is a heavy charge, but I have no doubt you are up to the task.  Why, otherwise, would you have chosen this profession?  And why, just as importantly, would the profession have chosen you?  Yes, chosen you – because social work is not so much a job as a vocation, and that is how it is with vocations – they choose you as much you choose them; they issue the call, and you decide only to answer or not.  Clearly, social work – the greatest profession – has called you, and you have chosen to answer; you would not, otherwise, be here tonight, prepared to “commence” to the next phase of your professional life.

Let me close by saying that as both a professor of social work and as dean of the College of Health, I am immensely proud of the wonderful work the School of Social Work does, and most especially of their contribution to this wonderful moment – the graduation of so many new professional social worker-change agents, fighters for social and economic justice.  Graduates and families, I applaud your accomplishment.  Faculty and staff, I applaud yours.  It is a single and singular accomplishment – important, timely, and indispensable – to Mississippi, the US of A, and, indeed, our ever-shrinking planet.  Thank you.

Dr. Michael Forster

Colin Powell comes out for universal health care

Maybe we’re nearing a tipping point in support for a genuine form of universal health care after all.  What else to make of Colin Powell, former general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Secretary of State, longtime Republican, and (perhaps importantly) a prostate cancer survivor, recently speaking out in favor of universal coverage?

Headlining a Seattle prostate cancer fundraiser, Gen. Powell spoke plainly and from the heart (quotations from an article by Valerie Bauman in the Puget Sound Business Journal):

“We are a wealthy enough country with the capacity to make sure that every one of our fellow citizens has access to quality health care… (Let’s show) the rest of the world what our democratic system is all about and how we take care of all of our citizens.”

“I am not an expert in health care, or Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, or however you choose to describe it, but I do know this: I have benefited from that kind of universal health care in my 55 years of public life.  And I don’t see why we can’t do what Europe is doing, what Canada is doing, what Korea is doing, what all these other places are doing.”

Powell shared a story about his wife, Alma, and Anne, a woman who does yard work for the Powells.  When  Alma Powell had a scare with aneurysms and a blocked artery, she received rapid and effective treatment covered by health insurance.  Anne, by contrast, had no coverage and couldn’t afford the MRIs doctors needed to perform surgery for a growth on her brain.  Out of compassion, Powell gave Anne the money she needed.

“After these two events, of Alma and Anne, I’ve been thinking, why is it like this?” Powell said. “Every country I’ve visited, every developed country, they have universal health care. They don’t understand why the United States of America, which uses more health care than just about anybody else, still (has) 40 million people not properly insured.”

“I think universal health care is one of the things we should really be focused on, and I hope that will happen.  Whether it’s Obamacare, or son of Obamacare, I don’t care. As long as we get it done.”

Get it done.  Now that sounds like a real leader talking.

 

Dr. Michael Forster

Is the fossil fuel industry the greatest threat to human health?

“Breath” – at least for higher-order organisms - is synonymous with life itself.  For a human, the cessation of breathing for more than an extremely short span spells death.  So we would never want to do anything to threaten our ability to breathe, right?  Doing any such thing would be madness itself – a kind of species suicide, the ultimate “health concern,” you might say - right?

But if so, why are we rushing to open the Arctic for oil and gas exploration?  According to an AP story published in today’s Clarion-Ledger, that’s exactly what we’re hoping to do, with the military leading the way.  The basic narrative is pretty familiar: A lot of oil and gas resides in the Arctic, previously unavailable because of permanent ice.  A warming climate is melting the ice, opening the way to exploration and extraction.  We’re an oil and gas hungry civilization, so let’s go get it.  If we don’t, the Russians surely will, making us more dependent than ever on politically unreliable sources for our energy needs.

There’s a “logic” to this narrative, to be sure, but more and more it seems like the logic of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick - our means may be rational, but the end itself is mad, a sure path to self-destruction.  Why are we hot to do more of the very thing – consuming unsustainable quantities of fossil fuels – that is causing climate change and all the disastrous consequences that come with it?  Surely the counter-narrative – reduce fossil fuel consumption by all means available, while investing heavily in alternative energy source development – is far, far more compelling.

But what does this have to do with breathing, that rather irreducible element of human health?  Yes, the planet may be warming at a discomfiting rate, but we can still breathe on a hot planet, can’t we?  Turns out, maybe not.  Even now, melting of the permafrost in parts of Russia is releasing significant quantities of methane previously trapped in ice.  Methane is a “greenhouse gas” with heat-trapping capacity roughly 25 times that of carbon dioxide.  The permafrost melting and the consequent release of methane is expected to accelerate in the next decades, parallel to the pace of fossil-fuel induced global warming.   As a result, in the view of some climate scientists, it’s possible that the human species will literally be asphyxiated.

Happy Arctic drilling.  I suggest we name the first vessel leading the way the Pequod.