In February, when Wellesley announced it was naming Dr. Paula Johnson as its 14th president, the news was widely applauded by students, alumnae and the greater academic community. Johnson, who has spent much of her career working on women’s health issues, will be the first African-American and the first physician to lead the liberal arts school in its 150-year history.
Johnson is a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the founder of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her pioneering work studying how gender affects the practice of medicine is internationally renowned.
Globe Opinion had a chance to speak with Johnson about her new job, her aspirations for Wellesley, and her thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows below.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your attachment to Wellesley and why you took this job at this point in your career.
My life’s journey and my work have really been focused on women’s health and on advancing women’s health through science and education. It’s a relatively new field. As I think about my journey in women’s health, it has its foundations in the liberal arts. Thinking about science through a very different lens of sex and gender. What is the social context of being a woman and how does that influence health? The convergence of my focus on advancing the health of women — and particularly thinking about how we train the next generation — it lead to me to considering higher education as a really wonderful opportunity to think more deeply about educating our young people. This isn’t the way we did science 25 years ago.
Q: You’ve talked about strengthening and deepening diversity at the school. Why is that important and what do you hope to accomplish?
Wellesley has been already committed to diversity of all types, and the community benefits from that. As you think about what is essential to delivering a world class liberal arts education, diversity in all dimensions is a corner stone of that. Ensuring that our students have an environment in which they can express themselves without fear of discrimination and that fosters responsible expression of different ideas and viewpoints is very important. Another component of this is just by having difference present doesn’t mean we are taking full advantage of that difference. We have to ensure that our residential experience is in fact taking full advantage of that diversity.
Q: What does that mean practically?
There are a number of opportunities to increase diversity including creating a more diverse pipeline for faculty. This is an issue that is being grappled with across higher education. We are not alone in this.
Q: What aspirations do you have for Wellesley?
We are in a period of time when women’s leadership is being appreciated more and is being recognized as important and even transformational in areas like the economy, health, and education. But at the same time we’re seeing inequities in our societies increase. Women frequently bear an unequal burden of those inequities. I think a leading women’s college such as Wellesley has a role in addressing these issues globally.
Q: Can you expand on what that role is?
We have the opportunity to provide the foundation for young women to enter the world to make a difference in whatever way they choose. We have to make sure that they are able to think critically, able to analyze issues, and able to bring their full lives to whatever their endeavors are. There’s leadership with the big L. When you start thinking about leadership, the model that comes to mind immediately is the president or the chief executive officer with the corner office. Those are tremendous opportunities that Wellesley women have been able to achieve. But, they’ve achieved leadership in so many ways. Leadership is also leaving somebody better because of your presence.
Q: That seems all the more important in the context of this presidential election.
Whatever our individual political views are, Wellesley is incredibly proud of Hillary Clinton. Just the mere fact that she is running is important for women of all ages. But I think it’s particularly important for young women so they can understand what is possible and see themselves mirrored in what she has achieved. We cloud this over by the discussion of who is voting for whom. But the fact is, we have a woman who is running and who got back up after losing.
Q: What issues are important to tackle for current students?
We focus a lot on the education of our young women. We have to also focus on the health and wellbeing of our young women so that when our students leave Wellesley that have not only received an outstanding education that will allow them to make a difference in the world, but they are leaving our school being as healthy as they can be both physically as well as psychologically. There are data that suggest right now that the rates of depression and anxiety that are some of the highest they’ve seen in high school students. We know that women are 70 percent more likely to experience depression and anxiety. That speaks to what our students are coping with on campus. We need to take a broad look at how we address and promote total health and wellbeing.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to the students at Wellesley, what would that be?
To be unafraid. To be unafraid as you search for your voice. It’s important as they enter this next phase of their lives. They have eight precious semesters to explore in a way that they may not ever have again. Take that opportunity and don’t be afraid of failure to cultivate resilience.
This article has been updated to reflect that Dr. Johnson is the founder of the Connors Center and a professor of medicine at Harvard.