Michelle Williams begins as Dean

Michelle Williams
Dean Michelle A. Williams

First day message from Dean Williams

July 1, 2016

Dear Members of the Harvard Chan School Community:

I am delighted to be starting my first day as Dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

It is my honor and privilege to be the leader of a School with which I have had a relationship as a student, alumna, faculty member, and department chair since 1986. Even though I did stray west to Seattle for a few of those years, I have benefited enormously from being a part of the Harvard Chan School community in one way or another for three decades.

It is here that I learned that public health is a big tent and a collaboration—public health takes talented people from the basic sciences, the population sciences, engineering, health policy, and a host of other disciplines, and focuses them all on a common goal—improving people’s health.

I believe the Harvard Chan School is the biggest and best of the public health tents. We cover vaccine development and urban development. We examine health literacy and health economics. We use all the tools in our collective toolkit to tackle the effects on health of climate change, migration, urbanization, nutrition, environmental toxins, domestic violence—to name but a few of the issues our School addresses. The list is long, the challenges immense. But the goal is the same—to create powerful ideas that lead to a healthier world.

During the past 30 years, I have watched the people at this School and this University work with passion, creativity, intellect, and drive. I am inspired by President Drew Faust’s call to become One Harvard, and I truly believe that everywhere across our campus and the campuses of our collaborating Schools at the University, we are all committed to bringing our gifts and talents in many different disciplines together to solve real-world problems.

I know that as I come to this new role, I will be challenged to live up to the legacy of my predecessors. Dean Julio Frenk led this School magnificently for six and a half years, calling us to revitalize and reshape our degree programs and urging us to experiment with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the development of “flipped classrooms,” and the creation of Harvard’s first combination online/on-campus degree program which is now housed here at our School. Julio launched the School’s capital campaign and then proceeded to attract the second largest gift in Harvard’s history to our School.

With Julio’s departure, David Hunter stepped in to serve as Acting Dean this past year and didn’t miss a beat, engaging faculty across the School in a research strategy process, opening an office for the School in India, and closing a $21 million gift to launch our new Center for Health and Happiness.

I am eternally grateful to both Julio and David for bringing me here five years ago to chair the Department of Epidemiology and for having set the bar for accomplishment at this School so high. And I am humbled and gratified that President Faust has honored me to be your next Dean.

Many have asked me: “What is next?” Needless to say, I certainly have some ideas. But I believe it is equally important to hear what you all believe we need to do next to improve both what we do and how we do it. This is why I began a listening tour this spring, meeting with graduating students and department chairs before Commencement, and why I’m now planning a more extensive listening tour with faculty, research scientists, postdocs, staff, alumni, and friends of the School over the summer and early fall. It is my intention to report my findings and share my overall strategy this fall.

As I conduct the listening tour and consider what arenas the School should focus greater intellectual resources on in the future, I am also well aware that the public health field aims to address myriad complex problems. They emerge at an alarming speed these days: undrinkable water in Flint, Michigan; the Zika virus; bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotics. Unsettled debates continue to demand our expertise as well: the impact on health of e-cigarettes, the Affordable Care Act, threats to food security, to name a few. We have to be deep and broad, nimble and steady, all at the same time. But I know that capacity resides within our big tent here at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead. I will count on your advice, good humor, and goodwill as we face public health challenges together. And I know that by working together, we will accomplish great things.

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

Welcome from Dean Michelle Williams

Dean Michelle A. Williams biography

photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer