Michelle Williams and Paula Johnson Are Making Their Mark

Harvard’s School of Public Health and Wellesley College are getting new leadership—and breaking new ground.

Michelle Williams Paula Johnson

Left: Michelle A. Williams of Harvard’s School of Public Health. Right: Paula A. Johnson of Wellesley College. / Courtesy Photos

The class of 2020 won’t be arriving until September—but this month, two important new faces will be setting up their desks. Michelle A. Williams will start as the dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health, and in doing so will become the school’s first female dean, as well as the first black person to head a faculty at Harvard. Meanwhile, Paula A. Johnson is assuming the mantle as Wellesley’s first black president. We talked to each of them about their milestone achievements, education in Boston, and their favorite TV doctors.

What makes working in higher education in Boston so special?

Williams: This community recognizes the importance of partnership. One thing I love about Boston is the high density of true leaders in biomedical sciences and higher learning. Boston’s at the cutting edge of bringing technology, industry, government, and philanthropy together.

Johnson: I chose to remain in Boston because of how many opportunities there are to collaborate. It’s such an extraordinary, exciting, vibrant environment in which to solve the most complex problems of our world; I find it an incredibly hopeful place to be.

How will your career in medicine shape your leadership at your school?

Williams: When there are emergent issues like Zika, the population can feel like public health is failing. I hope there’ll be greater value placed on public health. [We] need enhancement, ingenuity, and creativity. We need to leverage all of the benefits these different sectors bring to the population.

Johnson: A [recent] study showed the number of high school students graduating with depression and anxiety is at an all-time high. We must think not only about [undergrads’] education, but also about creating an environment in which their physical and mental health is important.

What does it mean to you to be named the first African-American leader of your institution?

Williams: We’re people first. I represent a population that’s been historically underrepresented in the biomedical sciences, and I’ve always appreciated that the best way to solve complex problems is for people with diverse sets of talents and perspectives to be at the table.

Johnson: It’s a tremendous honor, because we know that when you bring different perspectives together, we achieve more.

You’ve worked in medicine for decades. What role do you see women playing in the field today?

Williams: In the past 30 years, we’ve really seen the doors open. When I was a student, we didn’t see women in these unique positions of leadership, like Margaret Hamburg heading the FDA. It signals to this generation of women that excellence in their science is not the ceiling.

Johnson: Every piece of data very clearly shows that when women are in leadership roles, there is positive change. We have to think about public health, economic and social policy, industry—and women’s leadership is finally being recognized as transformative.

You share the same middle initial: What does the “A” stand for?

Williams: Ann. My parents were Catholic; I think it was their aspiration that I be saintly!

Johnson: Adina. That was my great-grandmother’s name, and my grandmother gave it as a middle name to my mother, who gave it to me, and I’ve given it to my daughter. So we hope it will be in our family for generations.

Which television doctor makes the cut for you?

Williams: I do have a weakness for these shows, because I’m a geek and it’s science. But it’s not really the single doctor that appeals to me: It’s the ensemble cast, like Chicago Hope.

Johnson: I used to think, Why would I watch something I live every day? But now I may be moved to get to know Dr. Miranda Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy, because her character actually went to Wellesley.