Back in the early 2000s, Dr. Charles Ambrose, Pfeiffer University’s president from 1998 to 2010, asked each university unit for a Steeple of Excellence project. The task of coming up with one for the now-defunct School of Adult Studies fell to Dr. Vernease Miller, who was serving as the advisor of the school’s Health Administration program.
Miller – who’ll retire on June 30 after serving Pfeiffer in various teaching and administrative capacities for 23 years – saw an opportunity to act boldly.
She launched the Carolinas Association for Community Health Equity (CACHE), an initiative in which Pfeiffer partnered with schools and hospitals to address health access and equity issues in minority communities. This was in keeping with the School of Adult Studies’ Steeple of Excellence focus, which was to work on health disparities.
During each of five years beginning in 2004, CACHE presented a high-profile symposium on a different leading cause of death among minorities. The symposia’s themes were cardiovascular disease (2004); cancer (2005); diabetes (2006); HIV/AIDS (2007); and obesity (2008).
The symposia, which attracted audiences as large as 820 to the Charlotte Civic Arena, had quite an impact. Speakers included leading physicians and other healthcare professionals from around the country. Written reports of each symposium’s key points circulated widely.
What’s more, “Pfeiffer was a huge symposium sponsor, and Pfeiffer’s name was up in lights,” Miller said. “It got a lot of recognition for being involved in the symposia and for heading them up.”
The spirit of CACHE lives on:
Miller recognized that the deficiencies in health access and equity that affected minority communities were much the same as those faced by residents of rural areas. So, when she became Dean of Pfeiffer’s Division of Applied Health Sciences, in 2012, she set about giving CACHE ideals a more rural focus in each of the division’s departments. This has meant, for example, that students in the division’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MS-PAS) not only learn high-level skills but are also taught how to apply them effectively in a rural environment. Another example: three conceptual threads run through the curriculum of the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) program, each with a rural OT in mind.
“Increasing access and eliminating disparities in rural health concerns – that is now the theme of the whole division,” Miller said. “If you look at the mission statements of all our departments, that’s what it’s about. I brought that to the university.”
Miller began working at Pfeiffer in 1997, having held several administrative positions in healthcare, ambulatory care, and public health. She holds a Master of Science in Health Administration from St. Joseph’s University and a Juris Doctor degree in health law from the Washington College of Law of American University.
In 1995, she and her husband moved to North Carolina. By that time, she had also taught health law and medical ethics for nine years as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. After a couple of years working as a public school teacher, she resumed university-level teaching at Pfeiffer as an adjunct in the School of Adult Studies, in which she taught Business Ethics, Health Ethics and Legal Aspects of Healthcare Administration. She also became something of a pioneer, joining the first class of Pfeiffer professors who were taught to teach online using the e-College platform.
Miller became so good at online teaching that for several years she created templates for other professors to lecture online. She has taught professors how to improve their teaching throughout her entire Pfeiffer career.
Miller’s gifts as an administrator became apparent early on in her Pfeiffer career when she became the founding program director of the School of Adult Studies’ Health Administration Program. In this position, which she held between 1998 and 2012, Miller was responsible for recruiting, advising, and registering 50-plus students each semester. On her watch enrollment exceeded expectations by 10 percent each year, and between 1997 and 2006, more than 300 full-time adult students earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
In 2000, Miller began teaching fulltime in the Master of Health Administration program and would do so for the next 12 years, until she became Dean of the Division of Applied Health Sciences. She taught three courses, rising to the rank of full professor in the process. These were Contemporary Health Services Organizations and Systems, Legal & Ethical Perspectives in Health Care Administration, and Comparative International Health. Crucially, she did more than impart the material; she also adopted a mindset of transforming students into future leaders.
“Many of our MHA students sit in the C-Suites of every major healthcare system in the Carolinas and beyond, including CEOs, CFOs, and directors of nursing,” she said. “I have taught them. I feel really good about that.”
And many of Miller’s former students are raving about her impact on them. Take M. Lewis Goldsmith II, who earned a joint master’s degree that combines health administration with business administration (MHA/MBA). He’s now a senior operations analyst at the Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.
Miller “has had a tremendous effect on my career and on my life,” Goldsmith said. “I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for her. I always knew that I could count on her to give me good advice.”
Kevin J. Price, who holds an MHA/MBA degree from Pfeiffer, is now the President and CEO of the NC Institute of Minority Economic Development in Durham. He called Miller “a phenomenally gifted teacher” and expressed sadness “for future students who won’t get an opportunity to experience (her) instruction.”
Michael S. Vaccaro, another student of Miller’s at Pfeiffer, also expressed appreciation for her mentorship. After earning an MHA/MBA degree in 2008, he would eventually become Senior Vice President, Nursing at Novant Health. At Miller’s request, he also served on an advisory group tasked with developing the offerings in Pfeiffer’s Department of Nursing.
“Dr. Miller was always supportive of me while in school, and I was always grateful for her support and guidance as I navigated that delicate balance of work and school,” Vaccaro said. “I was certainly grateful for her mentorship as I traveled through my Pfeiffer journey.
“As my career progressed, Dr. Miller never missed an opportunity to reach out to me and congratulate me on successes in my professional life. Whether it was a promotion or a recognition I received, she was always there with a kind word or note of inspiration, which I always appreciated.”
Miller said she is retiring because “it is time to move on.”
“I have given my best,” she said. “I do plan to remain intellectually engaged, although I don’t know in what manner. Nevertheless, I will always be a life-long learner.”
Perhaps, Dr. Dawn Lucas, the Dean of Teaching, Learning, and Innovation at Pfeiffer, best summarized the impact Miller has made.
“The academic programs that were under her leadership experienced growth in numbers and in stature, which can be seen in the many alumni who have gone on to become leaders in their fields,” she said. “Dr. Miller’s loyalty to Pfeiffer as an institution, to the faculty as a colleague, and to me as a friend is unwavering. She poured her heart and soul into Pfeiffer, and her legacy will remain strong for years to come. I am proud to call her my friend and my colleague, and wish her well in retirement.”
Ken Keuffel, who authored this article, has served as Pfeiffer’s Assistant Director of Communications since December 2019. He welcomes story ideas from Pfeiffer’s faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. The form for submitting story ideas is at www.pfeiffer.edu/newsform.