Thank You

The Department of Health Policy and Management, in the UNC Gillings School of Public Health honored me last week with their Distinguished Alumni Award. Both my undergraduate BS and Ph.D. are from this Department and I owe them a great deal. Thank you to Morris Weinberger, the Chair, and the rest of the Faculty of the Department of Health Policy and Management for this wonderful Award. I am deeply honored and wanted to say a few thank you publicly and offer a reflection on my primary intellectual regret from the nine years spent learning at Alma Mater.

Thank You.

  • Thank you to UNC Chapel Hill. Carolina changed my life and I would be nothing professionally without the training I received from the faculty and so many passionate graduate students. I moved into Winston Dorm in August, 1986 as an uninitiated kid, just bouncing through life and having a good time, and left as a scholar committed to research and education. I was introduced to the life of the mind at Carolina and was shaped as a scholar and person there. I am forever grateful.
  • Thank you to the UNC School of Public Health for teaching me a simple definition of Public Health—“you protect the individual best by  protecting the whole.” While this principle works most deterministically in infectious diseases, I believe there is something called the common good, and I encourage everyone to keep searching for it even when it is difficult. Public Health is the appropriate way to think about most profound societal problems such as Racism, wealth inequality and sectarianism because these are systemic problems and not individual failures alone.
  • Thank you to the Sheps Center for Health Services Research, for both pre doctoral and post doctoral training. I now direct the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University and try to catalyze funded research across Duke. This perspective has taught me what a gem UNC has in the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research. Great credit is due to Gordon DeFriese. They have managed to create and nurture an intellectual legacy built upon some state support, soft money, hustle and a passion for trying to make the world and the lives of the disadvantaged a bit better.
  • Thank you to Tom Ricketts. He was a part of all 9 of my years at UNC. He taught me introduction to Health Policy in 1987 when an undergrad, and it was the first inkling that I would study health in some manner. He mentored me in undergrad, hired me as a research assistant one summer when I was doing the MPA program at UNC and needed a job, and later became my dissertation chair after I refocused on health policy for my Ph.D. Tom Ricketts exemplifies great mentorship—he treated me as a colleague before it was warranted, but did so in a way that protected me from horrible mistakes.

As I reflect on my time at Carolina, and the 35 Augusts I have lived since I moved into Winston Dorm, I have only one intellectual regret–I did not take a course in United States history at UNC because I placed out of it via my score on the AP US History Exam.

However, in the last decade or so, I have come to understand that my education in both United States as well as North Carolina history was incomplete and purposefully false. Just one example. Charles B. Aycock is the most famous person from my hometown of Goldsboro, NC. We learned growing up that he was “the education Governor” a title that is perhaps deserved because he brought about compulsory education for Whites and Blacks, though segregated, and certainly not equally funded. However, he was also an unreconstructed White Supremacist to the end of his life in 1913 who clung to a philosophy that bordered on a personal theology that Blacks were inferior to Whites.

No word of this was taught to students growing up in Goldsboro.

We need to trust young people with a more full and truthful telling of our history. Middle School and High School students can handle ambiguity. They know people are not always as good as their best moment, nor always as bad as their worst. Our State needs to trust our young people with a full look at our past as we wrestle with what it means for the future, and the various bills in the North Carolina General Assembly seeking to write curriculum policy via bumper sticker slogan is an embarrassment to our great State. Finally, I would like to suggest that all undergrads at UNC should be required to take a course in North Carolina or United States history, regardless of their score on the AP US History Exam.

Structural Racism–the ways in which White is the default ideal in numerous life domains–is the biggest public health challenge of our time, and part of the solution is an honest reckoning with our history, and learning how to talk about difficult topics, especially when we disagree. I suspect if we trust our adolescents and teens and give them just a bit of guidance, they will do a better job at this than have their parents and grandparents.


Don Taylor

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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