Black History Month Series | This Pitt administrator pursues twin career goals: eliminating racial health disparities and helping faculty fulfill their career potentials

Issue Date: 
February 26, 2007

“Junior faculty at research universities have an incredibly hard job,” observes Rachael J. Berget, a project director in the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health’s (GSPH) Center for Minority Health (CMH) who intends to write her doctoral dissertation about career development for faculty. “They serve a six-year apprenticeship, during which they have to justify their professional existence by seeking new knowledge and obtaining funding for that research, disseminating it to colleagues by publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and teaching students,” she says. “If they don’t do everything right, they don’t get tenure and have to start again in a new location.

“I believe it only makes sense to teach junior faculty how to succeed in academe, because it’s a waste of time and resources for a young faculty member to fail to get tenure,” Berget adds.

As tough as it can be for a White tenure candidate to succeed in a “majority” U.S. research university (i.e., a school with a predominantly White faculty and student body), the process tends to be even more challenging for African Americans, says Berget.

“In majority institutions, minority faculty members often are looked upon as representatives of their race,” she points out, “and so they are asked to serve on an inordinate number of committees aimed at helping to recruit and retain more minority students or minority faculty. That can be really fulfilling work, but there’s also this constant internal struggle: Do I spend my time trying to help other Black people, or do I concentrate on getting tenure and improving my own career trajectory?”

Many African American researchers are interested in sociopolitical, health, and social-justice issues that particularly affect Blacks—and that can hurt those researchers’ chances of getting articles published in major journals, according to Berget. “Studies have shown that if your research involves minorities or minority issues, the major, high-impact journals may well say, ‘The scope of your work is too narrow,’” she says.

To help African Americans and members of other underrepresented groups succeed as academic scientists, Berget codesigned CMH’s Summer Research Career Development Institute. It’s an annual three-day program, launched in summer 2005, that brings junior faculty and postdoctoral fellows to Pitt from around the country to learn such skills as negotiating for faculty positions, writing grant proposals, and getting published in peer-reviewed journals.

“It’s been one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done professionally,” Berget says of her work with the institute.
Berget’s primary job in CMH is directing the center’s EXPORT Health project, aimed at studying and, ultimately, eliminating racial and ethnic healthcare disparities. Nationwide as well as locally, Blacks suffer proportionately higher rates of diabetes, infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, and some cancers than do Whites, notes CMH Director Stephen B. Thomas, who also is the Philip Hallen Professor of Community Health and Social Justice in GSPH and the University’s School of Social Work. For example, in Allegheny County more White women than Black women develop breast cancer, yet more of the county’s Black women die of the disease.

EXPORT (Excellence in Partnerships for Community Outreach and Research on Disparities in Health and Training) Health is funded by a $6 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, received by Pitt in 2003, the same year that Berget began working in CMH.

From July 2002 to July 2003, she was program director in the Office of Academic Career Development in Pitt’s schools of the health sciences. There, she designed career-development courses and workshops for basic-science faculty, physicians, postdocs, residents, and clinical fellows. The office was founded in 2002 by Arthur S. Levine, Pitt senior vice chancellor for health sciences and dean of the University’s School of Medicine.

“Dr. Levine recognized a need, and he put money and resources into that office,” Berget says. “I applaud him, because not every major research institution in the country has an office of faculty development like our [six] health sciences schools do.”

Berget began her Pitt career in the medical school’s Department of Anesthesiology, where she served as administrator of special projects (February 1998-January 1999) and academic manager (January 1999-March 2000). She then served for two years as an assistant to Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg—helping to plan special events; acting as a liaison between the chancellor and Pitt trustees, senior administrators, faculty, staff, and students; and investigating and resolving student complaints that came to the chancellor’s office.

“It was fascinating!” Berget says of working in the office of Pitt’s chief executive officer. “Sometimes I felt like I was an air-traffic controller working high up in the tower of an airport, seeing all of the planes coming in and flying out. It gave me a sense of how so much of the University’s business moves independently yet fits together.”

A self-described U.S. Army brat who grew up mainly in Houston, Texas, but also lived briefly in Waco, El Paso, and Abilene—as well as in New York State, Canada, and Germany—as her family followed her father’s military assignments, Berget earned the B.S. degree in business education at the University of Houston in 1983. She was certified to teach business education in Texas middle schools and high schools. Unfortunately, Berget says, during the early 1980s “the public schools in Houston were kind of a battleground. Teachers didn’t get paid very well, and depending on where you taught, it could even be dangerous. Even though I loved teaching, I knew it was going to be very difficult for me to get a job in the type of school where I wanted to teach.”

So, Berget donned a suit and joined the corporate world, working first for IBM Corporation in Texas and then, after moving to Pittsburgh with her husband Peter (a biological sciences professor at Carnegie Mellon University), for PPG Industries. “Both were great corporations to work for,” she remembers, “but I knew I wanted to be in a learning environment. I thought: Why not work in higher education?”

In December 1999, a year after starting work at Pitt, Berget completed her M.Ed. here, specializing in higher education administration and earning a perfect 4.0 GPA. She began the coursework for her Ed.D. at Pitt in January 2005.
Berget’s dissertation research focuses on Black faculty development—a subject she hesitated to take on, she says, for fear of being perceived as “just another Black woman who is only interested in Black issues,” as Berget puts it.
“But then I decided: I can’t worry about such perceptions. I have to do my research on a subject I have a passion for, and that interests me, and in which I feel I can make an important contribution.”

Berget attributes her resolve to lessons she learned from her parents and from studying the lives of other African Americans. “I know it probably sounds trite to say I admire Oprah Winfrey, but I do,” Berget says, a bit sheepishly. “She came from a really underprivileged background, and now she’s one of the richest, most successful women in America. Maya Angelou is someone else I really admire. She came from extremely humble beginnings, yet she earned a Ph.D. and read her poetry during President Clinton’s first inauguration.

“I’ve always been a believer in the empowering, restorative, edifying effects of education,” Berget adds. “When I see people—Black, White, or from any other race—who have benefited from pursuing an education, or have used their education to benefit other people, that’s tremendously inspiring to me.”

When Berget and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, she recalls, her father warned her to expect to encounter racism here. “My father had been stationed during the early 1960s in the West Deer/Gibsonia area, which was then the site of a Nike missile installation,” Berget says. “At the end of a shift one day, some White soldiers asked him to join them for a beer at a local tavern, but when they got to the tavern, the bartender refused to serve my father. That happened a second time, too, at a different tavern.”

Berget says her family had been spared such blatant racism on U.S. Army bases, where, as she explains, “Uncle Sam tells you who you’re going to live next to or share a mess hall with, and if you don’t like it, too bad. True, that’s forced cultural collaboration, but still, military life always seemed to me like an oasis from racism and racial unrest.
“Anyway, when my father warned me about Pittsburgh, I told him, ‘Well, I’ll have to see for myself.’ And I must say, I have been pleasantly surprised.

“I do wish there were more opportunities for Blacks in Pittsburgh, and I don’t think there are as many highly placed Blacks in Pittsburgh as there are in other American cities. But on a personal level, Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh have been very good to me.”