Michelle A. Williams announced on Thursday that she will step down as dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health at the end of the 2022-23 academic year.
Williams, a renowned epidemiologist who has published widely on maternal and child health, will remain on the faculty. After a year-long sabbatical, she plans to resume the research, teaching, and mentoring that have long been at the center of her academic career.
“After 12 years in academic leadership, including nearly seven years in this intense, exhilarating, and profoundly humbling role as dean, I have decided it is time for me to take the advice that we in public health so often dispense and step back to reflect, recharge, and return to activities that hold deep meaning for me,” she wrote in a message to the Chan School community. She added that her tenure as dean was “full of challenges, but even more full of joy.”
In a message to Chan School faculty, staff, students, and alumni, Harvard University President Larry Bacow cited Williams’ global influence as an internationally recognized epidemiologist and educator.
“Michelle has embraced our collective imperative to understand and confront public health challenges worldwide and to serve the public health through the transformative impact of education, research, and discovery,” Bacow wrote. “A champion of collaboration, she has strengthened connections and programs with other Harvard Schools as she has explored new and creative avenues for, as she memorably put it, ‘purposeful action.’”
Bacow said he and Provost Alan M. Garber would share information in the coming weeks regarding the search process for Williams’ successor.
Williams led the Chan School through the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when public health was squarely in the global spotlight and the School’s faculty and alumni took critical leadership roles in research, policy guidance, and communications to the public in the United States and around the world. On campus, Williams led rigorous efforts to improve teaching and mentoring, strengthen diversity and inclusion, and increase support for tenure-track faculty, including by raising the share of salary covered by institutional support from 20 percent to 30 percent. She also launched several high-impact initiatives to advance global health security, including the Harvard Global Nursing Leadership Program, a collaboration with the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the African Union, and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Michelle has led the Harvard Chan School during a period of tremendous uncertainty and change that placed public health in the limelight, but also under the microscope,” Garber said. “An advocate for the field of public health, she cares deeply about the School and the potential it holds for improving lives. Under her leadership, the Harvard Chan School has made major strides toward enhancing faculty diversity, expanding support for its students, and guiding world leaders and the public with its expertise on a range of public health issues, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic. The School has grown in visibility, and it has proven itself as an innovator both in research and education.”
Born in Jamaica, Williams immigrated to the U.S. with her family at age seven and grew up in Queens, N.Y. Her parents had only nine years of formal education between them, but both they and her teachers encouraged her to pursue higher education. In 1984, Williams became the first person in her family to graduate from college when she received a B.A. in biology from Princeton University.
While drawn to the sciences, Williams realized that she would prefer to address real-world problems rather than pursue a career at the bench. She went on to earn a master’s degree in civil engineering from Tufts University and a master’s and a doctor of science degree in epidemiology from Harvard. After a postdoctoral fellowship, she joined the faculty at the University of Washington, where she made her mark integrating epidemiological and genomic approaches to public health challenges. Her research has surfaced critical insights into reproductive, perinatal, and infant health around the world, including large-scale studies to understand the environmental causes of poor pregnancy outcomes.
The co-author of more than 500 papers, Williams has also won awards for outstanding teaching and mentorship from institutions including Harvard, the American Public Health Association, and the White House.
In 2011, Williams was recruited back to the Chan School as the Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health in epidemiology and chair of the Department of Epidemiology. She was named Dean of the Faculty in 2016, becoming the first Black woman to lead a Harvard faculty.
As dean, Williams championed efforts to work across disciplines, sectors, and continents to solve the world’s most pressing public health challenges—among them, the destructive impacts of climate change, deep inequities in health care access and outcomes, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic.
She successfully made the case that many public-private coalitions would do well to incorporate academic partners to ensure methodological rigor — and she put that philosophy into action in co-founding multisectoral organizations such as the COVID Collaborative and leading innovative research such as the Apple Women’s Health Study, a pioneering study of menstrual cycles and gynecologic conditions conducted in collaboration with Apple and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Williams launched several high-profile international collaborations during her tenure as dean, including a joint research and education initiative with the Vanke School of Public Health at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She also co-founded the Global Coalition of Deans of Schools of Public Health with the goal of identifying areas ripe for joint efforts on issues of global importance. The group’s next meeting, in March, will focus on innovative approaches to addressing climate-driven food insecurity in the Global South.
On campus, Williams led a rigorous focus on improving the student experience. Initiatives have included expanding practicum opportunities, bringing in more professors of the practice to share what they’ve learned on the front lines of public health, and rebooting the Center for Health Communication with an educational mission. She also launched an online MPH Generalist degree to extend the Chan School’s reach to more students, including those with full-time jobs. One of Williams’ newest initiatives, Harvard HealthLab, is an accelerator for student social impact ventures, established in partnership with Harvard College.
A national leader on issues of race and equity, Williams hired the School’s first Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer, expanded faculty diversity through roughly two dozen new hires, and supported a significant growth in diversity and inclusion training, including unconscious bias training for application reviewers and hiring managers. A firm believer in the power of bringing together diverse perspectives, Williams has advocated strongly for cross-disciplinary research and pushed to break down traditional silos of the academy.
These and other initiatives have drawn strong support from students and alumni. The Chan School has seen a 67 percent jump in applications since 2020.
The Angelopoulos Professor in Public Health and International Development, Williams holds joint appointments at the Chan School and Harvard Kennedy School. She plans to spend time during her sabbatical writing a book on the public health warriors who made the modern world—and the lessons we can learn from them.