Dr, Michael Forster serves as the dean of the College of Health at The University of Southern Mississippi. Recently, Forster took a few moments to reflect on his current responsibilities and outside interests in a question-and-answer format.
Q:What is your hometown and what were your interests as a young man growing up?
A:I am originally from New Orleans. As a kid I had pretty mainstream interests – organized sports as well as a lot of unstructured recreation; in summers I practically lived in Lake Pontchartrain. I was active in Scouting until the hormones kicked in seriously and I was able to work part-time, fuel a car and date young women. I also blew a pretty good trumpet until high school when I let it go.
Q:Did you have visions of becoming a college professor when you were a youngster?
A:No, I didn’t have a serious thought about joining the professoriate until I attended graduate school in political philosophy at the University of Massachusetts. As a high-schooler and undergrad in the heady days of the late 60s and early 70s I was more interested in doing unspecified “political” work. I seriously considered law school and labor organizing. I grew up in a working class family (father a mail carrier, mother a store clerk) and don’t recall considering much at all about having a career until 17 or so.
Q:What led you to your current position at Southern Miss?
A:Timing and opportunity converged – does that qualify as destiny? By 1994 I had worked as a social worker and social work administrator in Chicago for 14 years. My wife and I had two kids, the town was pretty violent at the time, the public schools didn’t have much to offer and we couldn’t afford quality private ones. I saw an ad for an assistant professor of social work position at USM in a national trade publication. I applied, aced the interviews, got the offer to start and took it. By 1996 I was the graduate program director and when the School of Social Work director left in 2000 I was appointed director. Something roughly similar happened in 2008 when the when College of Health Dean Fos took a provost job in Texas and I was asked to serve as interim dean. The university started a dean’s search that fall. I applied and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q:What are the biggest challenges you face as dean of the College of Health?
A: Budgets, buildings and a severe disadvantage in national/regional competition for scarce faculty. Each of my seven units is seriously under-resourced in money and personnel.
Q:What would you consider to be the No. 1 health issue facing our country today and why?
A:Unhealthy behaviors – exactly the things we hear are at the root of our national obesity epidemic: sedentary lifestyles, overeating, eating processed, unhealthy foods Add to that our absorption in near-constant frenzied “communication”/networking that cuts into sleep, raises stress levels and whittles concentration and attention spans and you have the makings of combined physical and psychological ill health. Why? As a nation we make the bad choice, the easy choice, (French fries over broccoli), rather than the other way around. We try to rely too much on “individual responsibility” rather than on smart policy (e.g. judicious taxation of junk food). We have a health care system that profits on treating illness rather than promoting wellness.
Q:Where do you see the biggest demand in the health industry 10 years from now?
A:Baby Boomers. Older folks need more health care, even when they’re relatively healthy. Without very substantial changes, the health industry will be overwhelmed by demand.
Q:What is your favorite part about being involved in higher education?
A:I still teach a good deal, both in Social Work and in the Honors College. It’s definitely the most “fun” part of the job. But it would be hard to list all the good points about higher ed – civil, thoughtful colleagues; pleasing environment; creative opportunities beaucoup; a tremendous amount of discretion over one’s time, despite all the time pressures, etc. Higher ed still offers some of the best work opportunities in America.
Q:What it one thing people might find surprising about you?
A:I have a strong contemplative streak.
Q:How do you like to spend your brief interludes of free time?
A:Reading in coffee shops; strolling neighborhoods (I do this a lot when in New Orleans and Chicago); watching films (past when I should be in bed).
Q:If you had not going into education what would you be doing today?
A:What I was doing before – social work, most likely in an administrative capacity in an urban setting.