Deanna Wathington, MD, MPH, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the USF College of Public Health, has been selected to serve as founding executive dean of the new College of Health Sciences at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“Though it pains us greatly to lose her, we recognize the tremendous opportunity this presents to her,” said Donna Petersen, ScD, MHS, CPH, professor and dean of the COPH.
“Dr. Wathington brings a wealth of experience and a passion for education that will be critical for the continued growth of our College of Health Sciences,” said Dr. Makola Abdullah, Bethune-Cookman provost. “We are excited to have her as a part of our team.”
Wathington joined USF Health in 2007 after serving as director of minority health for the Florida Department of Health in the Jeb Bush administration. Prior to that, she provided leadership in the Office of Educational Affairs at the USF Morsani College of Medicine.
Among many accolades for Wathington during her time at the COPH, Petersen credits her for leading the college through its last self-study and accreditation, securing federal training grants for student support, providing leadership for the creation of the USF Health Shared Student Services Center, and overseeing growth in both the breadth of academic program offerings and the number of students enrolled.
A veteran of countless state, regional and national medical boards and committees, Wathington is co-founder of an interdisciplinary health disparity team that received $6 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (more specifically, the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities).
Wathington’s interest in public health began while she was an undergraduate at Rutgers University, where, at the age of 19, she was hired as a health educator for students.
After graduating with a degree in zoology, public health came calling again with a health educator offer from a local agency. Wathington was planning a career in medicine, she said, but her second public health gig really lit her fire for the field.
“It was great, it was fascinating, it was fun!” she said.
It also led her to a public health position at an agency in Philadelphia, a passion for community health, and pursuit of a Master of Public Health degree at Temple University.
While that may have spelled a shift away from the medical school dream for many people, it only brought the dream into sharper focus for Wathington.
“As a result of my community work,” she said, “I started working with a group called Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues, one of the first groups in the country to really look at and try to confront what didn’t have a name at the time but eventually emerged as HIV. Working with them is what really spurred me to re-think health professions and what I wanted to do, what I needed to do, and what I would need in addition to my master’s in public health to be the best health professional. So then I decided to go to medical school.
“My original reason for wanting to enter medicine,” she added, “was my little sister, who was born with multiple congenital defects and has suffered through many health challenges and health-care financing issues.”
Those issues later provided the basis of a recruiting podcast that won an award from the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Wathington completed her MD at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey – New Jersey Medical School, which since has been absorbed by Rutgers.
“I decided that family medicine was the best fit for what I do in public health, not the other way around,” she said.
She began her residency at JFK Medical Center in Edison, NJ. Her husband was offered the opportunity to become a partner in a practice in the Tampa Bay area in the middle of her residency, she said, so she finished it at Bayfront Health Center in St. Petersburg.
True to her life pattern, one success led to another for Wathington, who progressed from residency straight to an assistant professorship.
“That had not necessarily been my intent,” she said. “I wanted to return to the community, but now I was in this new community. I took the job because I thought it would give me an opportunity to learn this community and to still address the issues that I wanted to address.”
A stint in private practice followed, but practical matters steered her back to public health.
“I liked private practice, but I have a family of four kids,” she said. “I have no support system. I need to go home. I can’t just go from the office to the hospital and be out all hours of the day all the time, and being in solo practice, that is what it is. You’re never not on call. I was offered an opportunity to come back here and go back to education and my community work, and that’s what I did.”
That, in turn, led to her work in educational affairs, including co-directing curriculum revision with COPH alumnus Bryan Bognar, MD, MPH, at the USF Morsani College of Medicine, which then led to her appointment there as associate dean for academic enrichment. That, along with her continued community work, led to her appointment by the governor to be director of minority health.
When Wathington returned from Tallahassee, Petersen invited her back to the COPH with an appointment as associate dean.
“I’ve been here since I came back in 2007,” she said, “and it’s just been fantastic. Donna [Petersen] is just an incredible leader. She’s a strong leader, but she cares about her people. She builds the community. She listens. She allows time and energy to be put into building a consensus, as opposed to being dictatorial. It’s just been a delight,” she said, “and she’s literally been the best person I’ve ever worked for in my life.
“I have had the pleasure of serving with many wonderful friends and colleagues while I’ve worked here,” she continued, “including, last but not least, my wonderful Academic and Student Affairs team, whom I will dearly miss. They have all made leaving a difficult decision for me, but it’s also quite an opportunity.”
With a lifetime of seizing opportunity and building on it, Wathington wasn’t one to turn it down. She anticipates leaving USF in the first week of July and reporting to Bethune-Cookman in mid-July.
“We are grateful that she is still in Florida,” Petersen said, “and we will find ways to continue to work with her.”
Story by David Brothers, USF College of Public Health. Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications.