Health administration powerhouse reflects on Buckeye roots, storied career
Janet Porter ’75 BS ’77 MHA will be joining our graduates and their families as the College of Public Health’s keynote speaker for Pre-Commencement 2022. Before she inspires a new wave of public health professionals, we sat down with Porter to talk about her Buckeye roots and vibrant career as a hospital administrator, teacher, association executive, consultant and public health leader. She’s taught at eight universities including Ohio State and Harvard and held leadership roles at institutions including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She’s served as a member of Ohio State’s Board of Trustees and the Ohio State University Alumni Association and on the boards of AARP, the World of Children and the National Center for Healthcare Leadership.
How did you decide to pursue health administration?
In my family, you go to college to get a job. When I came to Ohio State as an undergraduate, I was a biology major, and my dad said: “What are you going to do with that?” So, I went to the Ohio State guidance counselor, took several aptitude tests, and was told I should be a hospital administrator. And I had no idea what that was. When I went to check out the Master of Health Administration program, I was immediately drawn to it. I finished my degree in biology and went straight into the MHA program.
What do you remember the most about your time as a student at Ohio State?
What’s most clear to me is entering my first semester in the MHA program and loving my classes and feeling like, “Finally — this is a complete fit with what I want to do with my life.” That was really gratifying after fumbling around as an undergraduate.
How did your career unfold after graduating?
My first job was an evening administrator at a 500-bed, inner-city Catholic hospital in Chicago. It was a tough neighborhood with a lot of homelessness and gang crime. I was in charge of the hospital after 5 p.m., and my job was basically crisis management. If a family was upset or a mental health patient set a fire or security caught a manager stealing laundry, I was the person they called. Every night was different.
After that, I became a vice president at what is now Nationwide Children’s Hospital, where I oversaw departments like pharmacy and anesthesiology on administrative tasks like preparing budgets or launching new programs. Essentially, I was the boss of eight older men who were 35-45, and I was 26. But we built a team. There weren’t a lot of women in the field at that time.
Then I went to get a PhD and an MBA in health care strategy from the University of Minnesota, where I was recruited by former Ohio State MHA director Dr. George Johnson. I was there five years before heading to a Washington D.C. health care consulting firm.
It was not long before I got recruited back to Nationwide Children’s as chief operating officer. While in this role I also joined Ohio State’s MHA faculty. (Porter remains an adjunct professor). I never thought I’d be a teacher, but there were no female faculty. I felt like it was my obligation — students needed to see women faculty. And then I really loved it. I went on to be an associate dean at North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, and after that I went to Boston as chief operating officer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Challenges included overseeing a $350 million building project, connecting the two hospitals we delivered joint care with, growing talent and improving quality, service and care to patients and families. We made great progress; I was like the coach, the communicator and the cheerleader. This job also enabled me to teach in Harvard’s (T.H. Chan) School of Public Health.
For the last 10 years, my husband Jim O’Sullivan and I have lived in South Carolina, and I continue to teach and consult and serve on boards.
What makes Ohio State stand out for health administration and public health education?
We have great faculty, and we have had outstanding leadership with Steve Loebs, Sharon Schweikhart and then Julie Robbins. We’re so fortunate to have had Julie for seven years as MHA program director. Ohio State also stands out for its strong and vibrant alumni network — it’s one of the best in the U.S. It’s why we get such good students, and why we have such terrific opportunities for them once they graduate. Many of my own jobs came about because of my Ohio State connections.
You had a strong role in forming the college’s William O. Cleverly Scholarship for MHA students, which turns 10 this year. How does it feel to see this scholarship continue to support students?
It’s terrific. A few years ago, I was at a national conference sharing a hotel room with a friend of mine who was chairing the Minnesota MHA Alumni Association, and she said their number one candidate, who was from Minnesota, chose to go to Ohio State because he got the Cleverly Scholarship. Another Cleverly recipient came to OSU instead of Harvard. That’s exactly what we wanted — to recruit incredibly talented students to Ohio State. And they are in significant leadership roles already.
Can you give us a preview of the message you’ll be giving CPH graduates during your Pre-Commencement address on May 7?
One thing I’ll talk about is grit. If you want to improve health in your community, you need to have grit — don’t give up.If you hit a roadblock, find a different way to accomplish your objectives. The people who make a difference are those who have passion and dogged persistence.
What do you hope for the future of public health and health administration?
I hope that we will have an enduring appreciation of the importance of public health due to COVID. Investing in public health serves all citizens. I also hope COVID has shone a light on the importance of hospitals and leadership in hospitals.