Dean Michelle Williams Reports “Listening Tour” Findings

Listening Tour
Photo: Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School

At the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, community members think it’s crucial for the School to keep a sharp focus on areas such as the educational experience, financial aid, diversity and inclusion, and infrastructure.

That’s what they told Dean Michelle A. Williams during her six-month “listening tour.” Starting last summer, the Dean held small-group meetings with more than 200 members of the Harvard Chan community and colleagues across the University, to learn what people think is working well, what needs improvement, and what their hopes are for the future of the School. Williams shared an update about the tour at a School-wide meeting held February 27, 2017.

Supporting The Mission

Community members said the School’s strengths included its mission, its impact, and the breadth and depth of its research. Others praised Harvard Chan’s pool of talented researchers, faculty, students, and staff, as well as programming that has strengthened connections with alumni.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion received accolades for its robust leadership, responsiveness to the community, and number of Town Hall meetings it has sponsored.

Areas of Concern

Among areas of concern, the School’s aging physical infrastructure topped the list for many. Community members also told Williams that financial aid needs a boost. And Williams said there is strong interest in making practice-oriented education more central to the School’s mission, in expanding community engagement, and in strengthening already solid efforts in diversity and inclusion.

Many of the community’s areas of concern are beginning to be addressed, Williams added. The Office for External Relations, for example, is working to articulate emerging research priorities in addition to the School’s existing fundraising priorities. The School is also focused on providing more financial support through professorships for faculty and fellowships, scholarships, and financial aid for students and research fellows.

Dealing With New Realities

Taking questions, Williams responded to concerns about how the changing political landscape under the Trump administration may impact Harvard Chan—such as a potential decrease in federal research funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Williams noted that the School has already been focused on diversifying its revenue stream, seeking philanthropic support as well as NIH grants, seeking foundation support, strategically partnering with industry and others to improve population health and reduce disparities—and those efforts will continue, she said. She also suggested that research- ers may be more successful in obtaining grants by working in teams that cut across disciplines.

It will be vital in the current political climate for the School to be more conscious in supporting all members of the School community to speak and write effectively and strategically about the overall importance of public health research—“to push back against the anti-expert, anti-truth, alternative-facts rhetoric,” as Williams said. “We have to find ways for our School and individuals within our school to amplify our voices.”

In addition to disseminating the School’s work through traditional channels such as high-impact professional journals, community members should become comfortable communicating to the lay public in other ways—by writing op-eds, speaking at community town halls, and collaborating with government and policy experts, Williams said.

“I think we have to be very strategic in thinking about reaching outside of our echo chamber,” she said. “If anything became clear on November 9, it’s that we—the ‘blue parentheses’—are not necessarily reaching the vast sea of red that represents [the area] between our two coasts. We have to find ways to better report what we know and have what we know inform action.”