Interim president leads Salem College on major academic shift

Newsmakers

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It’s an educational “pivot” so unprecedented even the Moravians who founded the institution in the late 1700s would no doubt be impressed.

“It goes with lots of Moravian traditions especially around inclusion and making sure that what we do is change the world in favor of equality,” said Dr. Susan Henking, the interim president of Salem Academy and College when she spoke with me virtually recently.

Like many small, private colleges across the country, Salem College in Winston-Salem, the nation’s oldest college for women to be in continuous operation, has struggled with finances and enrollment in recent years. The pandemic hasn’t helped.

But in the fall of 2021, it will become the nation’s only liberal arts college where the entire four-year academic campus experience will be linked to — drumroll please — health careers. Specifically, preparing women to take leadership roles in health-related fields, fields currently dominated by men.

“We decided on this health leadership thing for some reasons and those included enrollment trends,” Henking said. “Students are interested in it, and that long predates COVID itself.”

Planning for this change started several years before the pandemic. Henking says COVID-19 only confirmed what she and others have been thinking.

“It’s confirmed that science matters. But it’s not just science. It’s advocacy. It’s the humanities,” she said. “When I think about how COVID has reinforced by commitment to health leadership, I think about the people in the emergency room who were triaged and what happens to them.”

“And when I watch folks like Anthony Fauci and others, we see they are felly embedded in all the things that include critical thinking, scientific thinking, quantitative thinking.”

Salem College will soon roll out three new majors for its 655 students.

The health science major will prepare students for graduate programs like medicine, nursing and physical therapy.

The health humanities major will help direct students to graduate programs or jobs in areas like public health policy, education and law.

And as the name suggests, the health advocacy and humanitarian systems major will focus on the “human” element: not-for-profit management, law school, and the kind of advocacy work people do to make sure others get access to health care.

Despite all this, Henking stresses Salem will continue to be a liberal arts college.

“Creativity, ethics, those are our core liberal arts values,” she said. “And we’re going to accomplish them through the lens of health.”

But what if you’re interested in a very liberal arts major like English?

“The answer depends on which English you want to major in,” Henking said. “So there are medical humanities classes that are done through literature. Out health humanities major incorporates courses from the English Department.”

Current students won’t have to change majors but will get what Henking calls “extras” that have health focuses.

She also doesn’t think there will be any major changes in teaching faculty. If anything, she feels Salem will be able to add faculty with the help of a recent $5 million anonymous grant — the largest gift in the institution’s history — announced in March.

“All of higher education is asking themselves, ‘how will we survive?’ And our board and our campus made the judgement this is how we will survive,” Henking said. “And it’s partly by meeting a need for students and donors that ends in meeting a public good.”

To learn more about Salem College’s new health leadership focus, click here.

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