The Wellesley College Board of Trustees unanimously approved the appointment of Harvard Medical School professor Paula A. Johnson ’80 as the first African-American president of Wellesley College.
Johnson, a professor of Epidemiology, will replace current Wellesley President H. Kim Bottomly, who will step down in July after serving in the post since 2007.
Johnson gave a welcome address Friday in Wellesley’s Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall to a room packed with students, faculty, and alumnae.
“There was so much positive energy and excitement in the room,” Charlotte Harris, one of two students on a search committee composed of trustees, students, faculty, staff, and alumnae—which unanimously recommended Johnson’s appointment—said.
Johnson, who helped found the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in an interview she hopes to expand global education for women who are stepping into leadership positions.
“We’re at a point in time where women’s leadership is finally being recognized as really transformative to the world and there’s also increasing inequity. So, there’s a real opportunity for Wellesley to play an even more significant role in the education of women,” Johnson said.
Students and faculty praised Johnson for her experience in women’s health and education, which they said was a major factor in the selection committee’s decision. As part of the search, committee members held several input sessions with Wellesley undergraduates and incorporated the feedback into a 16-page document, Harris said.
“What set Dr. Johnson apart from all the other candidates is her enthusiasm in her work… her true understanding of the importance of a liberal arts college and the education of women,” Shivani Kuckreja, the other student on the search committee, said.
Several Wellesley students expressed excitement at Johnson’s appointment, with many emphasizing that, of the college’s now-14 presidents, Johnson will be the first African-American leader.
“Paula Johnson will have better ability... in terms of her experience of being a black woman to deal with needs of students of African descent,” Sydney Stewart, co-chair of the Ethos Political Action Committee, a Wellesley group for students of African-American descent, said.
Pointing to her medical background, Johnson said she is interested in student health and wellness, which she recognized as major points of concern for campuses across the nation.
“Mental health is a really big issue here. Lots of people recognize that the environment we live in is high-stress,” Stewart said. “She’ll better be able to address the needs of students when it comes to mental health because of her expertise in the field of medicine.”
Cathy Zhang, who studies chemistry at Wellesley, similarly praised Johnson’s medical background.
“I think she can take her skill and expertise and really just help our science program and outreach grow further, and I’m just really excited about that,” Zhang said.
Besides Johnson’s credentials, “having [a president] who has lived around and near Wellesley will give her insight into the school,” Harris said. Johnson’s family—she has two children, including Jonathan A. Sands ’17—also allows her to better understand issues affecting undergraduates, Harris said.
—Staff writer Ellen Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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