Howard W. Houser started working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham so long ago, it wasn’t even UAB then. Houser started in 1965; the university formally was founded in 1969.
This month, Houser, a professor in the Department of Health Services Administration and an associate dean in the School of Health Professions, is retiring after a more-than 40-year career full of personal and professional landmarks. He got his start at the University of Alabama Hospital and Clinics as assistant administrator and director of manpower development.
“The week I started in February 1965 was coincidental with the federal order to desegregate the hospital,” says Houser. “I was the new guy, so the job of monitoring was assigned to me.”
Houser calls that an awesome experience.
Houser, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., had been recruited to the hospital by then Chief Administrator Matthew F. McNulty, Jr., whom he had met while serving in the Air Force in Montgomery, Ala.. Even then, McNulty had the concept for what would become the School of Health Professions and wanted Houser to help him make it happen. They started planning for what would later be called the School of Community and Allied Health Resources.
After 18 months, Houser left the hospital to earn his doctorate in health administration at the University of Iowa, knowing he had a job in Birmingham when he finished. “We’d meet at professional conferences from time to time and hold faculty planning meetings about the new school in the hotel,” Houser recalls. “When I returned with my doctoral degree, I headed up the new master’s program in health administration that I had helped develop in 1965.”
Keith Blayney had been recruited to be dean of the new school. He and Houser began building programs, hiring faculty and developing the school.
The school’s reputation grew in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and suitors from around the world came knocking, looking to tap into the expertise being assembled on the city’s south side. A UAB delegation went to Finland in 1975 to help start allied health programs. Houser and colleagues consulted with the Peruvian health system in 1980 and built allied health programs in Jamaica between 1983 and 1986. Then, in 1984, came the call that truly would be Houser’s most meaningful international partnership.
“The Chinese government wanted help with health-service administration education in 1984, and I was tapped to head our efforts,” he says. “As a Cold War youth, I never would have thought I’d go to China and work with the communist government there, but it truly changed my life.”
His first visit spanned six months in China, working in conjunction with Project Hope, a U.S.-based medical relief organization that hired UAB and Houser to provide services to China.
“We set up a four-year program to educate Chinese students in health administration,” he says. “They’d spend their first two years in China, come to UAB for one year and return to China to finish. We graduated the first class in 1989.”
Since then, Houser has enjoyed a 26-year relationship with China. He’s hosted more than 100 visiting students, scholars and medical delegations and helped establish a state-of-the-art pediatric hospital there. His wife, who also is on the faculty at UAB, is Chinese, and they maintain a home in Beijing.
Through it all, Houser says his greatest joy was being able to see UAB grow. The campus was contained in six blocks in 1965; it covers more than 80 now. The School of Community and Allied Health Resources started with three faculty members in 1970; the School of Health Professions now has 98.
The school has enrolled 46 classes in health services administration since its inception. Other than the third and fourth, while he was away at Iowa, Houser has taught every one, a total of more than 1,200 students. Today those former students work at hospitals and medical facilities across the country and the world. Some of those former students have worked to create an endowed professorship in health services administration in his name.
And that, according to Dr. Howard W. Houser, is the greatest tribute of his life.