Welcome Back from Dean Williams, Fall 2020

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community:

Greetings, and welcome back from what I hope has been at least a somewhat restful summer! If you were anything like me, you found it hard to remove your public health hat for any prolonged period of time—but I do hope you all found some space to reset, regroup, and spend quality time with those you care about in your COVID-19 bubble.

While we may not be together physically this fall, I am still excited to meet our newest class of inspiring students, reconnect with colleagues over Zoom and email, and reaffirm our mission to advance the health and well-being of all people, especially during these unprecedented times.

We are truly embarking on a new academic year like none other. As so many in our community long predicted and feared, we remain engulfed in the worst public health crisis in a century. At the same time, we find ourselves in the throes of a long-overdue reckoning with the structural racism and discrimination that persists in every aspect of our daily lives.

The past six months have been nothing short of a global awakening to the conditions that threaten the health of every person in the world. As such, the public is finally recognizing that public health is more than a moment. As we all know, public health is a movement—a full-throated, long-term embrace of solutions that are as intersectional and multidimensional as our public health challenges themselves.

It is this understanding that guides our School and the vast range of work underway across our nine academic departments and multiple research centers, as evidenced by some remarkable developments over the summer.

New Events Programming

In a typical year, we pause after the spring term ends to collect our thoughts and plan a new spate of events for the upcoming academic year. Given the circumstances of the moment, however, we continued with our series of COVID-19-related webcasts into the summer, to extraordinary effect.

In June, the Harvard Chan School and the New England Journal of Medicine came together to present “When Public Health Means Business.” The multipart series virtually convened luminaries from the realms of finance, industry, and health to map a new path forward through COVID-19 and beyond. The series reached a high-water mark in early August with an hourlong interview between CNN’s Sanjay Gutpa and NIAID’s Anthony Fauci, with the event engaging a total of 32 million people across TV, video, and social media.

The School continued its popular COVID-19 Mental Health Forums, a weekly web series that introduces evidence-based skills to managing stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health produced frequent Facebook Live Q&As about the pandemic throughout the summer, and Voices in Leadership pivoted its programming to focus on leadership in crisis. Finally, the School’s India Research Center produced “COVID-19 Outbreak: On the Frontlines,” an ongoing webinar series providing insight into India’s policy and health-systems response to mitigating the crisis.

This fall, we will continue all of the above programming, as well as introduce new content. On October 6, we will host a conversation with Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. Later in October, we will present a similar conversation with Ed Yong, an award-winning science writer at the Atlantic. If you have not done so already, I encourage you all to read Yong’s September cover feature, “How the Pandemic Defeated America.” It is brilliant and thought-provoking, and we very much look forward to having him here. More guests and programming will be announced throughout the fall.

Office of Diversity and Inclusion

In June, we welcomed Amarildo “Lilu” Barbosa as our new chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer. Over the summer, Lilu hosted multiple community dialogues and also met with many individual departments to advance crucial conversations around culture, power, privilege, and social justice. Lilu has since embarked upon a Year One plan for the office that will move us toward a renewed commitment to racial justice and an infusion of antiracist practices. During the year, his office will continue to assess systems and practices to inform our work for change and future strategic directions. Among the learning-focused initiatives his office is introducing for 2020–2021:

The Race.Dialogue.Action series brings guest facilitators to the Harvard Chan School to focus on personal capacity building and is intended to reinforce learning outcomes centered on the key concepts of interpersonal and systemic racism, skills for race-based dialogue, and practices for fostering antiracist environments.

The Community Impact Initiative aims to facilitate learning of antiracist practices in the development of public health professionals and in the application of effective community-oriented practices and engagement in Black communities and communities of color. The program experience will focus on increasing awareness of racial biases and assumptions impacting application of public health practices in communities of color, learning on effective practices that support racial justice via equitable community partnerships and interactions, and action-based contributions to local community organizations addressing issues of systemic racism.

More information about these initiatives, including how to register and get involved, will be shared by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion a little later this fall.

Faculty and Staff Updates

From the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard Chan faculty mounted a robust, prominent response, conducting vital epidemiological, basic science, and social science research; providing evidence-based information to policymakers and the public; and joining the public health workforce, among other activities designed to help the country and the world face the pandemic with facts and compassion. As CNBC reporter Meg Tirrell put it during Part 1 of “When Public Health Means Business,” Harvard epidemiologists and other public health experts have become our country’s newest “rock stars.”

That work continued through the summer, both remotely and in person, even as so many of our faculty also began to plan for a semester of remote teaching. It is impossible to encapsulate their tremendous achievements, but to share a few highlights:

  • Our faculty have developed or initiated 395 discrete COVID-19 research projects and been funded to continue their groundbreaking work in areas such as testing, racial disparities, herd immunity, and workplace transmission.
  • Research teams have developed seven new smartphone apps and surveys to learn more about the coronavirus, as well as new partnerships such as the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network, a team of infectious-disease epidemiologists from universities around the world co-led by Caroline Buckee and Satchit Balsari.
  • As of August 31, Harvard Chan professors had written 127 op-eds, amassed 27,863 media hits, and held 83 press conferences.

Every year, I am excited to grow our research ranks, and this year is no exception. We recently welcomed three new faculty members to our community. They are:

Our incoming faculty for 2020–2021 are:

  • Nora Kory, assistant professor of molecular metabolism;
  • Stephanie Child, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences; and
  • Natalie Slopen, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences.

I am also excited to announce the appointment of three Harvard Chan faculty members to endowed professorships, which were made possible through significant philanthropic gifts:

  • Wendy Garrett, professor of immunology and infectious diseases, was appointed Irene Heinz Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, effective July 1, 2020.
  • Jane Kim, dean for academic affairs and professor of health decision science, was appointed K.T. Li Professor of Health Economics, effective September 1, 2020.
  • Benjamin Sommers, professor of health policy and economics, was named the Huntley Quelch Professor of Health Care Economics, effective July 1, 2020.

Welcome and congratulations to all!

Harvard Chan staff members, meantime, have proven the other rock stars of this pandemic period. Perhaps no department has proven more nimble than the Department of Information Technology. Starting in the spring, IT staff members moved more than 120 classes onto Zoom in just two weeks. In May, they collaborated with colleagues across Student Affairs, Student Services, Communications, and Education to produce a completely remote graduation ceremony. And throughout the summer, they have offered trainings and tech support, distributed computers and other equipment—sometimes from the trunk of a car!—and otherwise worked to make our fully remote fall semester a seamless one.

As Kate Targett, director for customer engagement and technology services, so aptly put it, “IT isn’t visible unless it’s broken. But how much we depend on it is more clear than ever before.” I know I speak for the entire Harvard Chan community when I extend my endless thanks to our IT staff, and indeed all staff members, whose efforts this spring and summer have made our “new normal” feel that much more normal.

New Student Program

A remarkable aspect of the Harvard Chan School—and a unique learning opportunity for our students—is the rapport built among School community members across backgrounds, disciplines, and interests. As our community becomes virtual in the age of COVID-19, we recognize now more than ever how important it is to create and cultivate community.

To foster these bonds during the remote fall semester, we have introduced the CHANnel program to help current and incoming students make these important connections with each other and with members of our rich global community. The CHANnels will be vibrant virtual spaces to facilitate community building, networking, and opportunities for informal learning. In the coming weeks, students will be receiving their CHANnel membership and activity information for the upcoming academic year.

Philanthropy Matters

Our alumni, donors, and friends recognize that our work is saving lives at scale—and that as the pandemic crisis unfolds, Harvard Chan School is a nerve center for the response efforts. As a result, our donors’ tremendous support helped the School achieve a remarkable 133 percent increase in philanthropic contributions in fiscal year 2020 over the previous year. The growth in giving came as a result of an increase in gifts from our graduates, in new contributions to accelerate and amplify COVID-19 response efforts, and from generous new and increased contributions to support faculty and students.

Speeding vaccine development; expanding testing; harnessing knowledge about healthy buildings; charting the postpandemic path forward; providing actionable, evidence-based advice; and tackling pandemic stress are among the areas of the School’s expansive, global COVID-19 response efforts and key areas in which we are seeking and receiving private philanthropic support. New projects, such as the Human Immunomics Initiativewhich seeks to increase understanding of the human immune system and has profound implications for the future of public health, are also a high priority for future fundraising, as are initiatives core to our mission, such as increasing support for our students, postdoctoral scholars, and the DrPH program; attracting flexible funding for early-stage scientific research; and funding for our exceptional faculty.

Having spent part of August poring over Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson’s remarkable new book about the structural barriers that keep us divided and disempowered, I have thought a lot about the work it takes to move seemingly immutable obstacles, be it systemic racism or an ongoing distrust in science. And I have come away heartened, because I’ve witnessed firsthand how our faculty, researchers, students, and alumni are rising to the historic challenges before us in ways we should all be proud of. From developing cutting-edge strategies to combat this virus to caring for patients on the front lines to working toward an antiracist transformation in our field and society, their work is a testament to the compassion, expertise, and agility of our School community.

As the late John Lewis wrote just before he passed away this summer:

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” 

It is my honor to make good trouble alongside all of you to make the world a happier, healthier, and more just place.


Michelle A. Williams, ScD 
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development,
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School