Harvard University names highly esteemed epidemiologist Michelle Williams as the next dean of the university’s Chan School of Public Health, after Harvard medical students demanded greater diversity.
This appointment is making news because Williams, known internationally for her work on maternal and child health, will become the first African-American faculty dean at Harvard, according to Boston magazine.
“I am honored and excited by the opportunity to lead the Harvard Chan School, and grateful to President Faust for inviting me to serve in this role at such a crucial moment for public health in the United States and around the world,” said Williams, according to the Gazette.
Harvard President Drew Faust released this statement about Williams, via the Gazette.
“She is a skilled builder of bridges — between the theoretical and the practical, the domestic and the international, the different disciplines that drive the School’s academic endeavors, and the different communities that shape its identity and aspirations. I know she will approach her new role with the intelligence, dedication, integrity, and humane spirit that she brings to all she does.”
The move follows a petition drive by 65 Harvard medical and dental students, calling themselves the Racial Justice Coalition, who are demanding greater diversity. They’re urging changes in the university’s curriculum, administration and admission process, according to Boston magazine.
The petition, signed by at least 300 people by Feb. 2, pointed to another petition drive in 1850, in which all-white male medical students opposed the admission of Harvard’s first three black and one female medical student. The coalition note that their petition seeks the opposite.
“We must relentlessly support underrepresented individuals at all levels of our institution,” the students urge. “We must demonstrate moral courage at every turn. And, above all, we must establish a vision, clarify our stated goals, and hold ourselves accountable to those aims.”
The Boston Globe reports that Williams is a native of Kingston, Jamaica, who immigrated with her family to New York at age 7.
She’s a Princeton University undergraduate in biology, who also earned a master’s in civil engineering from Tufts University and advanced degrees in public health from Harvard and the University of Washington, where she later taught epidemiology. In 2011, she returned to Harvard to work as the university’s chair of the Epidemiology Department, a position that she currently holds.
Williams hopes to serve as a role model and inspire others to “recognize it’s possible for them … to be first in something,” she said, according to the Globe. She begins her new position in July.