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Michelle Williams to Step Down as Harvard School of Public Health Dean

Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams.
Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams. By Courtesy of Ben Gebo
By Dorcas Y. Gadri and Krishi Kishore, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams will step down at the end of the academic year after seven years in office, she announced Thursday.

Williams was the first Black dean of a Harvard school’s faculty and HSPH’s first female dean. Prior to assuming the role of dean, she served as chair of the school’s Department of Epidemiology and conducted research on child and maternal health.

“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,” Williams wrote in an announcement to School of Public Health affiliates Thursday.

Williams oversaw a period of turmoil at HSPH, with high leadership turnover during her time as dean. Affiliates of the school told The Crimson that she and her deputy created a toxic culture, and faculty at the school weighed a rare vote of no confidence against her in 2018.

Williams is the second dean of a Harvard school to announce their departure in recent weeks after longtime Harvard Divinity School Dean David N. Hempton said last month he would step down on the same timeline. University President Lawrence S. Bacow is also set to step down in June 2023.

During her tenure, HSPH launched collaborations with other Harvard schools, organizations, and academic institutions abroad — including the Harvard Global Nursing Leadership Program and a collaboration with the Tsinghua University’s Vanke School of Public Health in Beijing.

HSPH also collaborated with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Apple to launch the Apple Women’s Health Study, which aimed to eliminate stigma around the menstrual cycle.

Under Williams’ leadership, HSPH also hired its first chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer in June 2020.

Williams also led the school’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2021, she co-founded the COVID Collaborative — a group of health experts, economic leaders, and educators brought together to help coordinate local and national responses to the pandemic.

“Under Michelle’s leadership during the historic public health crisis posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty proved themselves to be an invaluable resource to governments and the public at large,” Bacow wrote in a message to HSPH affiliates Thursday.

Williams will resume teaching and research as part of the HSPH faculty after a sabbatical year.

“Looking back, I see a kaleidoscope of memories. The COVID pandemic, of course, looms above all,” Williams said. “I will always be proud of how our community mobilized to meet the moment, producing research and guidance that saved countless lives and shifting our vital educational programs online without missing a beat.”

Bacow said University leadership will soon launch a search for Williams’ successor.

—Staff writer Dorcas Y. Gadri can be reached at

—Staff writer Krishi Kishore can be reached at

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