Welcome back!

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community,

Welcome back!

The start of every academic year is full of promise, and I’m especially energized this fall by the outstanding cohort of new students joining us from a record number of applicants. We have a great deal to look forward to—and a great deal to do together.

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about action and impact. You may have seen that CDC Director (and Harvard Chan alumnae) Rochelle Walensky has launched an ambitious drive to remake the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into a more nimble, transparent, and action-oriented agency. I applaud that initiative. But I was also struck that in describing the failings of today’s CDC, many reporters described its culture as “too academic”—meaning too slow, too bureaucratic, too focused on preparing data for publication rather than applying that data to get ahead of the COVID pandemic.

I can’t be alone in wincing to see “academic” as a synonym for impotent.

So, here’s my challenge to you: Let’s change that image of academia, at least as it relates to public health. Quite simply, the world needs more from us.

Don’t get me wrong: Curiosity-driven and goal-oriented research are still core functions of the School. We must continue to generate new knowledge and publish that knowledge in academic journals. That’s how science advances.

But we must also make clear that knowledge generation is only one part of our mission. Across Harvard Chan School, we are finding new ways to effectively communicate our insights to policy makers, practitioners, and the public at large. We are actively translating ideas into programs, policies, and business ventures that make a real difference in the lives of millions. And of course, we are training the next generation to build upon our discoveries and push them further than we can now imagine.

In other words, we are not just a premier research school, though we are certainly—proudly—that. We are an action school. An impact-driven school. As a community, we change lives, not just here and there, but every day, all around the world, as we work toward our shared vision of health, dignity, and justice for every human being.

That’s not aspirational. That’s who we are right now. We must get better at telling that story.

We must also recommit as individuals and as a community to this ethos of impact. The way academia is traditionally organized is incompatible with the work we’re called to do in public health; tackling the biggest challenges of our age demands collaboration across disciplines, across sectors, and across continents. We must go out of our way to make room for those collaborations. We must reward the quiet and often unseen work of building trust, building capacity, and building coalitions. We must value practitioners as highly as scholars. And we must nurture a culture of entrepreneurship. That isn’t always seen as compatible with the values of public health, but it should be. We’re all here to make a difference, whether that’s with a study or a startup. Let’s champion purposeful action in all its forms.

Speaking of action: Our development team and I are on a mission to raise funds for a much-needed expansion in financial aid. You’ll be hearing more about that in the months to come. You’ll also be hearing about several important School-wide initiatives, including our work to grapple with the University’s Legacy of Slavery report.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the Arthur Ashe quote I shared at Orientation:

                      “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Harvard Chan School is an outstanding place to start. And I am privileged to work by your sides as we do all we can to advance our vision of health, dignity, and justice for every human being.

My best wishes for a fall semester full of learning and growing, action and impact.


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