Dr. Paula Johnson is currently the 14th president of the esteemed women’s college (and my alma mater!) Wellesley College, and is the first African-American woman to hold this position. She began this role in July of 2016, and has been met with roaring approval from students and faculty for her strong leadership and absolute warmth as an individual. She really is in it for the students, and it was such a pleasure to interview her! Read on to learn what it really means to be the president of a college, including leaving her role in medicine and looking at things with a long-term view.
You have done so much in your career and have spearheaded many different initiatives in a variety of fields. Can you tell me about what you were doing before this in the healthcare world?
I was a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a professor of public health at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. And so in academic medicine, I had a number of different positions over the years, but for the past 15 years before coming to Wellesley, I had founded and ran a center that focused on women’s health. And what that means is, we had a very large resource agenda with a number of faculty doing research on women’s health. On how men and women biologically differ in all aspects of health and disease. And so we had people looking at mental health, issues around cardiovascular disease, all of the different types of rheumatologic disorders –so that’s bone and joint– as well as autoimmune disorders. And I could go on. But that’s the gist of that.
And then there was a clinical side that really asked the question, “How do we take the research that we have really invested in and translate it into critical care? What does it look like then to actually receive gender-informed care?” So we had a big practice that we started with about 13 different specialties, and it was focused on evidence based women’s health. And then we did quite a bit of policy work. So some of the work we did with others really led to the NIH, the National Institute of Health, to change some of their policies, to be more inclusive. And then we did a number of training programs so that young physician scientists would have a deep grounding in science that really looked at these issues. So that’s pretty much what I did.
What made you want to transition from medicine to higher education?
The position at Wellesley was not in the plans, it was not something that I had ever imagined myself doing. But if I think about it, and when the opportunity was presented to me, I really spent my career invested in women. Invested in the health of women, invested in the training and education of not only women, but the majority were women. And it’s really been the focus also of quite a bit of my volunteer life in the arena of reproductive rights. So then, when the opportunity presented itself, it just made sense. And it made sense not only because higher education is one of the pathways to the world, but that it made sense that it was about women, it was about the educational development of young women. And so it was just such an honor. You know, when you start the process you don’t really know if it’s going to happen, but as I learned more about Wellesley it felt like just the perfect next step in my life trajectory.
The other thing I will say is that some of my most wonderful times at Harvard Medical School and at the School of Public Health have been working with undergraduates. And having either undergraduates or recent graduates come and work for us, or times I’d go to the College and teach [undergraduate] classes at the College. And the undergraduates were just phenomenal. The world was opening up in front of them, and I think to be given the privilege to lead a college, and to think about all of you at this stage in your life, and to think about what it means to shape your education, your experience, and to prepare you for the world...there’s nothing better.
In this role, what are your main responsibilities?
I lead the college in every way. So it’s like being the CEO. You really are in charge of how the entire school runs. Now you don’t do that alone, obviously, and your job when you’re the head or the president is to make sure that one, you have a vision for where the college is going to go, how you think about the future of the college. That’s informed by all of the constituents. And then it’s really about building a team who has the deep expertise in all the areas that touch the college and move the college forward. So whether that be the academic program which is really in the Provost’s Office, or Student Life, or whether that’s Finance or Administration...I could go on. How we communicate, how we raise money. Because in order to do all of this, we have to raise money.
We wouldn’t be here had we really not been able to every year attract an enormously talented group of students. So how do you build the team, how do you get the team working as a team, how do you foster that synergy? And then how do you really work with the board of directors? The Board is my boss. They’re the people who really oversee the college for the long haul. My job is really making sure it all works in concert. That we are able to attract the best faculty and the best students, but also to run the college day to day.
What has been your most meaningful accomplishment in this position so far?
Getting to know all the students and the faculty, getting to know the culture of Wellesley. But it really has been really getting our leadership team to – we have several new members, we have a new VP of Finance Administration, we have a new VP for the Dean of Student Affairs, we have a new General Counsel – so a lot of last year was really spent making sure that our leadership team was strong. We already had a strong team, but for those critical positions that were empty or needed to be developed, it was really about how do we hire the best people who are not only top in their field, but who are right for Wellesley. And who can be synergistic for thinking about a vision for Wellesley, and working together to make sure that vision’s implemented. So I’m very proud of the fact that we have a phenomenal team and I think we’re on a wonderful path to take Wellesley forward.
What has been one thing you didn’t expect that you have to do, but you do?
I can’t really think of anything. You know, it’s so interesting, I’m sure there are things that I hadn’t thought about, but there’s nothing that has come across my desk or anything that has been a surprise. The other thing is, I think it’s a very busy job, as you can imagine, and carving out time for your family and friends is something that has to be intentional.
Least favorite part of your job?
I would say the least favorite, not a part of my job, but a piece of my job I have to stay very conscious about, is there are some weeks that are just so intensely busy for one reason or another that I actually don’t get to see students. And those are not good weeks, because I do this job because of our students, and it’s in service to our core mission. You feel it when, you know, there are so many different aspects of the college that have to be dealt with. And not all of them, at the end of the day it does all come down to students, but that issue could be financial or many other things. And even if it’s just having a quick conversation or going to a student event, when there’s a week that goes by and there isn’t that time, it’s difficult. Those are not great weeks.
What’s the biggest initiative you want to push through that you think is essential for colleges nationwide today?
I really think health and wellness is one that we have to focus on. And it’s an issue across the country. When I get together with college presidents in any setting, we’ve been focused on this issue and part of it is what’s happening in high school these days or even before, with our young people experiencing increased rates of anxiety and depression. And then you come to college and you’ve checked every box, you’ve done extraordinarily well, but how do we then instill a sense of space and time for the social growth that needs to happen, as well as the intellectual growth, and do it in a way that is enhancing to one’s health and not detrimental?
And I think that’s a big question, because it’s not just in Student Life, it’s about the Academic Program, it’s about who we are. We are really beginning to take a look at what are some of the evidence based initiatives that we might undertake to essentially improve health and wellbeing. So I think that that is critical. And very much connected to that again is, what does it mean in the 21st century when life is different, our students are different, to create strong community? And that to me is connected to all these issues around free speech, it’s connected to all the issues we’re focused on around diversity and inclusion, but what does it mean for a culture that is so highly focused on technology and a culture where in the world there’s so much uncertainty, how do we bring that all together. And I think all of that is very much connected to health and wellness.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Thank you so much, Dr. Johnson! Wellesley has been so lucky to have you as its leader, and hopefully our readers will be inspired to follow in your footsteps when their time comes! Readers, come back next week for another dose of her wisdom – this time we’ll be looking at how to successfully change career paths. (Photos provided by Chris Hennessey)