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Spring 2022
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Dean Barbara K. Rimer's Legacy Is One of Head and Heart

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Through her 17 years of leadership, Dean Rimer will leave a lasting legacy that positions the Gillings School as the #1 public school of public health in the U.S.

Many people dream of changing the world. Some people actually do it. Though she would demur to the description, Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, is among the latter group.

Dr. Rimer joined the UNC School of Public Health as an adjunct associate professor in 1992. She began her service as dean in 2005, launching a 17-year journey at the helm of what is now — through a transformative gift she helped secure — the internationally renowned Gillings School of Global Public Health.

When Dean Rimer steps down this summer, she will remain on faculty as Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Health Behavior. In announcing that she was stepping down as dean, she made it clear that she still has work to do, students to mentor and untapped passion for making positive change.

That same irrepressible energy has colored Dr. Rimer’s entire service as dean. She reshaped the role from her first day in it — being both the first woman and first behavioral scientist to hold the position — and went on to become the School’s longest-serving dean. She led Gillings to what currently stands at five consecutive rankings periods as the top public school of public health in the United States and second overall according to U.S. News and World Report.

What most people think of first is her powerful fusion of insight, humility and generosity of spirit.

Under her leadership, the School has vaulted past peers in grant dollars, becoming the top public school of public health for funding from the National Institutes of Health and building a portfolio of more than $1 billion in research dollars since 2016. That funding has supported scientific inquiry, education and practice across all 100 North Carolina counties, 47 countries and five continents.

Over the course of her career, Dean Rimer has compiled a litany of national achievements. A notable cancer researcher in her own right, she chaired the National Cancer Institute’s Advisory Board, was elected to the Institute of Medicine, received the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor and was appointed to the President’s Cancer Panel, which she chaired from 2011 to 2019. She was vice chair of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she co-authored hundreds of scientific papers, and she earned more awards than can be named here — but none of this defines her.

At the Gillings School, Dean Rimer paired her innovative vision with a singular work ethic. She spearheaded the development of the Water Institute at UNC, created the School’s Practice Advisory Committee to engage community leaders across N.C., and fostered strong partnerships across the University and the state, positioning Gillings researchers to lead large-scale projects of critical importance in areas such as water quality, children’s environmental health, and COVID viral sequencing and surveillance.

She also marshalled Gillings leaders in revamping the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree, launched the online MPH@UNC program, and developed a multi-partner public health program with UNC-Asheville and the Mountain Area Health Education Center. These accomplishments have altered the course of public health for the better — but, again, they do not define her.

Dean Rimer has championed inclusive excellence within the Gillings School — through an ambitious Inclusive Excellence Action Plan — and more broadly, as part of the N.C. Governor’s Commission on Inclusion. From candid town hall meetings with students to thoughtful blog posts about events like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure application, she has offered an example of leadership not through buzzwords, but through action informed by collaboration. The School’s 2021 fall cohort was its most diverse yet, welcoming a record number of students from historically excluded groups. And still, this is not what defines our outgoing dean.

In the case of Dean Rimer — Barbara, to all who meet her — what most people think of first is her powerful fusion of insight, humility and generosity of spirit.

There are few staff and faculty at the Gillings School who have not received a hand-written note or email from Barbara congratulating them on a promotion, mourning the loss of a loved one or celebrating the birth of a child. Similarly, few in the Gillings community have not witnessed Barbara’s sincere redirection of any accolades given her to the people around her, whom she consistently credits for the School’s continued preeminence.

In one of her blog posts, Dean Rimer quoted Dr. Jane Goodall: “I think empathy is really important, and I think only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential.”

For 17 years, Dean Barbara K. Rimer has offered a shining example of that philosophy in action. That example is her greatest legacy.