Meharry Medical College President Dr. James E. K. Hildreth

Nashville, TN (TN Tribune)–When crisis hits, you do not hesitate – you call in the experts. That is exactly what Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) did when it called on Meharry Medical College late last year to mitigate viral COVID-19 spread in schools throughout Davidson County.


Meharry has been in the trenches of public health battles since 1876. Unlike other institutions which volley to address crises as they arise, the nuts-and-bolts of disease transmission are mission-central at Meharry – every day, every year. Meharry is led by Rhodes Scholar, Harvard- and Oxford-educated immunologist James E.K. Hildreth, Ph.D., M.D. When you have a veteran public health trailblazer and future member of the White House’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in your own backyard, you turn to him to care for your children in a pandemic.


When COVID-19 threatened the safety of MNPS students, faculty and staff, Meharry was equipped geographically and operationally to stop the spread. The college formed a wholly owned subsidiary – Meharry Medical College Ventures (MMCV) – to leverage its clinical, research and educational expertise to spearhead health initiatives in our city. MMCV partnered with MNPS, RecoverHealth and other businesses in our community to develop and implement a comprehensive, district-wide plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our159 public schools and to protect students, faculty and staff from its deadly impact.


Today, Nashville holds an exemplary track record among major U.S. public school systems for its management of COVID-19. Thanks to MMCV, our schools were able to open their doors while other urban districts across the country remained closed. Responding to the many concerns of rightly anxious Metro parents, MMCV plotted out intricate safety protocols for school reentry. At every step, Meharry experts established safeguards, ensured rigorous screening and testing, and hired and trained the critical staff needed for MNPS’ systemwide COVID-19 response.


The results of the plan were phenomenal. When the school year ended, not one school had closed early due to COVID-19. Students, faculty and staff entered the summer happily and safely, with no lives lost to the virus. Meharrians had fulfilled their obligation to the city extraordinarily well. Because of MMCV’s preparedness, diligence and expertise behind the scenes, classroom instruction, proms and graduations went offwithout a hitch. The parents and people of Nashville got the seamless reopening they had hoped for.

Yet now that the crisis is over, some politicians and members of the public are questioning the bidding process MNPS carried out to award the contract to MMCV. Of course, a healthy public interest is always important. But what is not welcome is the implication of wrongdoing on the part of Meharry and its partners in accepting and carrying out this contract. Instead, it is insulting and disrespectful to the men and women of Meharry who stepped forward at the worst possible time for our city’s schools and accepted the colossal challenge to get and keep them open. Failure was not an option. But even when MMCV succeeded beyond all expectations, that was clearly not enough either.


How soon we forget what was at stake. How lucky we are that Meharrians protected our schools so our city did not face outbreaks, illness and death. Not only did MMCV succeed, but it did so under budget, shaving $4 million off the $18 million allotted. Yet thousands of lives spared and millions of dollars saved is clearly not satisfactory for some.


If the outcry is truly over the no-bid contract, it is curious why other institutions in this city that are awarded equally lucrative, uncontested contracts do not receive the same level of scrutiny. Why aren’t the minute details of their expenses and the names of their subcontractors called into question and plastered across sensational news stories? Could the difference be that this is one of the first such contracts of this size to be awarded to an HBCU?


Those questions are troubling to many of us, but they do not occupy the minds and attention of Meharry Medical College. Meharrians choose instead to keep their focus squarely on what has always mattered most to them: responding to the needs of others and saving lives. Our city must thank them, applaud them and support them. The residents of Nashville are forever fortunate that in our moment of darkness, Meharry shined a light and led all of us, including our most precious children, to safety on the other side.