Former Mexican Health Minister To Lead Harvard School of Public Health

Frenk, a former visiting professor at HSPH, will take over from dean Bloom

Unnamed photo
Associated press

Incoming dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, Julio Frenk, served as Mexico's health minister from 2000 to 2006.

Julio Frenk, a global health expert who served as health minister under former Mexican President Vicente Fox, will become dean of the Harvard School of Public Health as of January 1, according to a statement released by the University today.

He will succeed Dean Barry R. Bloom, who is stepping down after having led the school for a decade.

Frenk emphasized the global nature of public health in a phone interview on Tuesday, saying that his top priority as dean would be to strengthen the school’s rapport with the rest of the world.

Frenk, who was health minister from 2000 to 2006, was the founding director-general of Mexico's National Institute of Public Health and later served as an executive director of the World Health Organization. He is currently a senior fellow in the global health program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"In these and other leadership roles, he has emerged over the course of his distinguished career as one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and eloquent exponents of the power of public health to change lives for the better," University President Drew G. Faust said in a letter to the school community. "He has remained closely engaged with the academy, including the HSPH, and has played a vital role at the crossroads of academic research and practice."

As health minister in Mexico, Frenk, 54, won plaudits for creating the Seguro Popular program, a national health insurance plan that expanded access to medical care for millions of Mexicans who had been previously uninsured.

Despite his popularity, Frenk later ran into resistance when he ordered the distribution of the "morning-after" pill to government health clinics under the direction of the health ministry. The move was attacked fiercely by the Catholic Church and anti-abortion activists, though praised by women's groups.

After leaving the health ministry, Frenk was considered a leading candidate for the directorship of World Health Organization, and even won the endorsement of the renowned British medical journal, The Lancet.

Frenk, who started his career as an academic researcher before moving into the policy arena, said that he does not expect his position as dean to be all that different from his previous post as health minister. He emphasized that his tenure as minister was characterized by the use of scientific knowledge to guide policy.

“For me, it’s all grounded in my firm belief that science and scholarship, not economic interest or short-term political gain, that will make the world a better place,” Frenk said.

Although Frenk said that government styles of management tend to be more “vertical” and top-down as opposed to a more “collegial” style at universities, he said that the difference would be conducive to better communication. 

“That’s also my style,” Frenk said. “I believe in dialogue, in listening so that I can understand better the challenges and needs of faculty and students.”

Frenk, who spends most of his time in Mexico City when not traveling, said that he will be coming to Boston every month starting September to immerse himself in the community at the School of Public Health and familiarize himself with the issues facing faculty and students.

Additionally, Frenk said that he hopes to establish a “very fluid communication” with Harvard's other graduate schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, emphasizing Harvard's recent push toward more cross-school collaborations in the sciences.

Though he has never held a full-time position at Harvard, Frenk does have ties to the University. In addition to having served as a visiting professor, he was the School of Public Health's Class Day speaker in both 2001 and 2007, and is an adviser to the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. He has also maintained close relationships with Bloom and two former deans of the school.

While the School of Public Health is often considered one of the best in the country—its masters of public health degree is the most selective program run by any school at Harvard—Frenk will face a few significant challenges as dean.

The school has outgrown its rented office space in the Longwood Medical Area, for example, and one of Frenk's biggest tasks will be to plan and preside over a move to new facilities in Allston.

Additionally, though the school has a reputation as a powerhouse, it is also less wealthy than many of Harvard's other units, meaning that the new dean will have to continue to improve the school's finances, particularly in the area of student aid.

Frenk gave few specifics in his first interview about his plans as dean, saying that first he will spend the coming months working closely with Bloom and faculty and students to understand their needs and expectations. 

As a Mexican national, Frenk will be one of two deans at Harvard who hails from a country other than the United States.

Mohsen Mostafavi, who has served as dean of the Graduate School of Design since last January, was born in Iran and spent a significant portion of his career in Britain. Additionally, the outgoing dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, is a native of India.

The naming of a replacement for Bloom marks the end of a chapter in Harvard history, as Bloom was the last dean remaining who had been appointed by former President Neil L. Rudenstine.

In just over a year in office, Faust has already had the opportunity to select many key deans, including for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Medical School, and Radcliffe Institute.

Majid Ezzati, a public health professor who has worked closely with Frenk in the past, sees promise in Frenk’s broad range of experience on both a national and international level.

“I think the thing that is probably unique about him—more than anyone else—is that he has served successfully in public health, global health, and as an administrator,” Ezzati said. “In each, he has had a vision that has transformed the world.”

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.
—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.