Outgoing Dean of Nursing leaves legacy of diversity and innovation

Afaf Meleis plans to continue advocating for women and equity after leaving Penn

· March 15, 2014, 10:24 pm   ·  Updated March 17, 2014, 9:52 am

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Outgoing Nursing Dean Afaf Meleis might be leaving her post at Penn, but she is not stepping down. “I’m stepping up,” she proclaimed.

“Stepping down means going down to something less than,” Meleis explained. “I’m stepping up to the next stage in my life and my career.”

According to many in the School of Nursing , Meleis’s time at Penn will be a tough act to follow.

“She is tireless in her determination to promote nursing as a practice and as a school,” Jennifer Pinto-Martin , chair of the Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences in the School of Nursing, said of Meleis. “She comes into work every day with a new idea for us.”

This energy translated into a sizable and varied legacy.

During her 12-year deanship - the maximum term for a dean allowed by the University - Meleis presided over the creation of the Helene Fuld Pavilion for Innovative Learning and Simulation, an increase in the diversity of students and faculty and the creation of four new centers to tackle issues of global health, health equity, transitional health and biobehavioral research.

She also reorganized the school’s administration into departments rather than divisions.

Pinto-Martin commended Meleis for her commitment to making the Nursing School an interdisciplinary institution. Meleis created the interdisciplinary Center for Public Health to highlight the work of public health researchers at Penn. Pinto-Martin herself has a background in epidemiology, not nursing, and is director of the center.

In addition to diversifying the resources and centers available through the Nursing School, Meleis has diversified the students and faculty of the school as well. She created the assistant dean for diversity and cultural affairs position within the Nursing School, currently held by Nancy Tkacs .

“Elevating [the position of director of diversity affairs ] to a member of her actual management team was just a huge statement,” Tkacs said. As a result, Tkacs claimed that the school was easily able to create a diversity action plan when required to do so by a university-wide mandate.

The Nursing School is also the only school at Penn with a postdoctoral fellowship for students from diverse backgrounds. Tkacs noted that during Meleis’ time at Penn, the numbers of Nursing faculty who are male, African American or Asian American have all increased.

“We can’t have research that will be helping the health of all people of the U.S. unless we have scholars [of different backgrounds],” Tkacs said. “Health care reform can’t just be by one group for one group.”

The same idea lends itself to Meleis’ commitment to global health, the topic around which much of her research revolves.

“We are such an interconnected world,” Meleis said. “I want everybody to have a global perspective.”

While she is globally minded, Meleis also turned her focus toward the West Philadelphia community. In 2005, she helped launch “Healthy in Philadelphia,” which works in the neighborhood to promote health initiatives to combat obesity and tobacco use.

When her term as dean ends on June 30 , Meleis plans to bring her focus even closer to home. She plans to spend more time with her five young grandchildren.

“This school helped me be the best dean I could be ... I want to make sure I can be the best grandmother I can be,” she said.

She says she wanted to leave years ago after she felt she had completed her strategic goals for Penn, but President Amy Gutmann convinced her to stay.

She also plans to continue advocating for women and equity during her sabbatical, but she hasn’t quite figured it all out.

“I made very definite plans not to make any plans,” Meleis said.

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