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HSPH Students Say New Dean Reflects Emphasis on Diversity

Michelle A. Williams, an epidemiologist and professor at the School of Public Health, is the first black person to head a faculty at Harvard and the first female dean of the school.
Michelle A. Williams, an epidemiologist and professor at the School of Public Health, is the first black person to head a faculty at Harvard and the first female dean of the school.
By Ellen Zhang, Crimson Staff Writer

At a time when students in Longwood have called for increased diversity on their campuses, Michelle A. Williams was named dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, becoming the first black dean of a Harvard faculty and the first woman to lead the school.

The appointment comes as students at Harvard Medical School, the School of Public Health’s Boston neighbor, have requested University President Drew G. Faust and a Medical School dean search committee to focus on selecting a new leader who will emphasize increasing diversity on campus. They also asked that at least a quarter of interviewed candidates for the position “come from backgrounds underrepresented in medicine.”

Earlier in February, Medical School students delivered a petition to Massachusetts Hall expressing their demands, though Faust was not in her office at the time.

Students at the School of Public Health said Williams’s appointment is a positive step forward for Harvard as a whole and represents the University's commitment to diversity.

“Representation matters,” Olivia R. Orta, secretary of the Black Student Health Organization at the School of Public Health, said. “[Williams] brings with her many years of experience and a unique point of view.”

Blake E. Johnson, president of the School of Public Health’s Queer Student Association, said he hopes Williams’s appointment will draw more faculty and students of color to the campus.

“We are in serious need of more tenured female faculty, as well as faculty who are persons of color,” Johnson said. “My hope [is] that the hiring of Michelle Williams does not end the commitment of the President's Office to increase the diversity within the faculty and administration at Harvard.”

Andrea S. Christopher, a student in the School of Public Health, said Williams’s appointment signified an important step towards equality in the sphere of public health.

“As a minority woman planning to pursue a career in academia myself, I am excited to see Dr. Williams has earned the position of dean,” Christopher said.

Williams is currently an epidemiologist and professor at the school, focusing on infant and maternal health. In July, she will take the reins from David J. Hunter, who has served as interim dean since Julio Frenk left the School of Public Health last year after six years as dean to become the president of the University of Miami. She will assume the position during Harvard’s ongoing capital campaign, as the school allocates a record-setting $350 million gift from billionaire benefactor Gerald L. Chan.

Discussions surrounding campus diversity are not new. In December, the School of Public Health hosted a “Listening Session” to discuss “several topics affecting diversity and inclusion in the School community including, but not limited to: education and training, recruitment, transparency, and establishing an office for community engagement,” according to the school’s website.

The search for the Medical School dean is ongoing.

—Staff writer Ellen Zhang can be reached at

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