Crystal M. James – Tuskegee University
There is a healthcare crisis in Alabama that is especially felt in the rural regions encompassing most of the state. More than a dozen of its 51 hospitals in these parts are said to be at risk for closure after accumulating $1.5 billion in losses from the perfect storm of COVID-19 costs and low Medicare and insurance reimbursements.
Should larger hospitals have to fill this void, their resources could be stretched in this state that said no to Medicaid expansion. Mothers, babies and children seem the most vulnerable, and someone’s got to stand up for them.
Someone is, with Tuskegee University at the forefront, this private Historically Black school having scored a federal $2.2 million grant last fall to expand the capabilities of its Center for Rural Health and Economic Equity. That’s an entity the university established in late 2020—the height of the pandemic—with the mission of improving the overall well-being of minorities in Alabama and elsewhere.
It’s also an undertaking too much for any one entity, says Crystal M. James, the Tuskegee University vice president and general counsel who co-leads the center and oversaw the grant proposal to the Health Resources and Services Administration. She says how much more effective the center will be if other schools—particularly Historically Black Colleges and Universities—partner in the cause, and that’s what the grant enables.
Tuskegee and 17 other schools now comprise a network with the shared goal of equalizing maternal health in rural America. The center will also train investigators, community health workers and midwives to identify and intervene to mitigate risk factors. Experts from the schools will share insights and ideas.
“In this state, we have to be more creative to overcome so many obstacles to equality in healthcare,” says James. “This is a pivotal moment in our commitment to ensuring it.”
No loss for ideas
James is indeed a creative force who’s weighed in during other pivotal moments on this campus since arriving as an associate professor of public health in the summer of 2016. After advancing to department head, she was tapped by then-President Lily McNair to strategize the school’s response to the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and promoted to vice president and general counsel by new President Charlotte Morris in 2022. The worst of COVID-19 is hopefully over, so James now turns her attention to an agenda that includes the maternal health initiative and others.
“My focus is on our new strategic plan, developing strategic partnerships and the crucial steps we have put in place across the university and with our stakeholders,” she says.The plan encompasses eight pillars, with her focus primarily on operational efficiency, community and strategic partnerships.
Under her guidance as general counsel, the university has identified and updated outdated policies and procedures with more digital solutions, enhanced record retention, and safeguarded confidential information. This transition has reduced the paper chase and legal costs.
Then there have been the partnerships she’s helped formalize with, among other entities, biotech heavyweight Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped Tuskegee University secure more than $4 million for what’s known as the Tuskegee Health Disparities Diagnostic Center a CLIA-certified (Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments) lab for confirmative PCR laboratory testing. Ever the role model, she shares her unique journey with students in the Pre-Law Society.
Her journey unique
Few could duplicate James’ journey in which public health preceded the law. Any professional interest took some doing on her part as James was expected to follow in her mother’s path and marry a high school sweetheart in their hometown in Broxton, Georgia.
“I told him I’d only marry after graduating college,” James recalls.
Only anywhere other than the local junior college seemed a pipe dream, James being a first-generation college student and money being sparse. But she did well academically and earned a full academic scholarship to Clark Atlanta University, where she studied biology and expected to pursue a career in life sciences.
Following her 1994 graduation, she never did marry her old boyfriend, instead enrolling in Emory University’s MPH program and, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meeting an almost larger-than-life man who would have a different effect on her life. He was William “Bill” Jenkins, a Morehouse College man with a Ph.D. in biostatistics, scholar and activist whose deeds included running the Tuskegee Health Benefits Program that advocated on behalf of those exploited by the infamous U.S. Public Health Service Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male at Tuskegee.
“Definitely a giant in the field of public health,” James says of Jenkins. “He advised that if I wanted to do policy work, I should consider law.”
She did and was accepted at the University of Houston Law Center, which U.S. News and World Report ranks among the nation’s best for healthcare law. Since graduating in 1998, James has alternated much between private practice and academia, including a 15-year stretch at Morehouse College and a decade each of managing a consultancy and law firm before joining Tuskegee University, a school where she didn’t need much introduction.
The right fit
As managing partner of her own law firm, Crystal James & Associates, she wrote a concept paper in 2010 that led to Tuskegee University developing its own program in public health. Six years later, the university beckoned James to come aboard and help further its public health curriculum agenda to full accreditation.
“I had a thriving law practice but also a young daughter in high school,” James says. “This would be a good way to be more available to her development.”
It’s also proved a good way for James to make her biggest impact, at least for now. Meanwhile, that daughter has grown into a Tuskegee University computer engineering student.
An energetic 50-something, James has years to go and says the idea of being an HBCU president someday has much appeal and how she’s benefited from being under the tutelage of Morris. At any rate, there’s much to keep her busy now, what with Tuskegee University’s progressive agenda and James’ volunteer activities.
When Vanguard caught up with James in December, she was hustling through Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., where she had attended a holiday party with the nonprofit she Chairs Board of Directors, Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS), had just issued a statement in support of Gaza’s women and children.
“There’s so much to do here in Alabama and everywhere else,” James says. “I’m committed to making a difference.”
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