Memphis and surrounding Shelby County face serious challenges to improving the health and well-being of our community. Early determinants of poor health that create risk for families and children are highly prevalent, with our overall poverty rate for children among the worst in the nation. Deep disparities in wealth are revealed, with poverty rates three to four times higher for urban minority families compared to non-Hispanic Whites. In national and county health rankings, Memphis ranks poorly for overall health outcomes and health risk behaviors. Although Shelby County ranks reasonably well for access to quality healthcare, this is in stark contrast with the poor and inequitable health status in many parts of the community. These realities highlight why the school was established, and illuminates the major challenges—developing research and engaging with the community to address disparities and the social determinants of health, thus ensuring a healthier future for all individuals and families in this region.
As a metropolitan research university, the University of Memphis is dedicated to generating new knowledge and translational research to provide practical solutions to the problems that impact the community we serve. Acknowledging the challenges facing our community's health, local leaders began discussion in the early 1990s of forming a new school of public health. At the inception of these meetings, there were no accredited schools of public health in Tennessee, with the nearest accredited schools in New Orleans and Birmingham. After nearly a decade of careful planning and preparation, the University laid the foundation for what would become the University of Memphis School of Public Health (SPH).
In 2006, under the leadership of retired President, Dr. Shirley Raines, the University sought approval from the Tennessee Board of Regents to develop a Master of Public Health program, and in 2007, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission approved the establishment of the School of Public Health at the University of Memphis. Dr. Lisa Klesges, the current and founding dean, began work in August 2008 to develop and organize the start-up of SPH within the College of Arts & Sciences. The Master of Health Administration (MHA) program and its faculty were transferred from the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy in the College of Arts & Sciences as SPH gained status as an independent entity within the University in 2009.