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July 13, 2016

Paula Johnson, a former professor and faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, will be the first African American to serve as president of Wellesley College. (Courtesy of Wellesley College) 

Rarely does one person in medicine make the impact that Doctor Paula Johnson has made. At 57 years old, Johnson has dedicated her whole career to improving women's health, focusing on the different ways men and women respond to diseases.

Johnson was the first woman - and the first African American - to hold the position of chief medical resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where she created the Connors Center for Women's Health & Gender Biology. She was also a professor and faculty member at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

This month, Johnson officially left the field of medicine to serve as the first African American president of Wellesley College. As part of our Leaders in Higher Education series, WGBH’s Kirk Carapezza caught up with Johnson on the Wellesley campus and asked her about her new role.

Interview Highlights

On her experiences in women’s health:

I was very fortunate growing up in Brooklyn. I have one sister, and from a very early age my mother focused on us not only being well-educated but also thinking independently. I think that really gave me the latitude to think differently about my college education. I went to Harvard Radcliffe, which allowed me to really have my first introduction to women’s health.

I’ve spent my life improving the health of women, educating students at all levels - in the undergraduate, postgraduate and graduate levels - and really thinking about the field that combines medicine and social sciences, which is so rooted in what I view as the liberal arts. Moving forward, taking the presidential role was such a natural next step. I wake up every morning, one being thrilled that I have this opportunity, and two feeling like there could be no better or more perfect next opportunity.

On maintaining her medical focus at Wellesley:

Probably most college presidents would tell you that it’s important to keep a sense of one’s academic identity. And I will find ways to do that because I think it’s part of being in the academy -- it’s part of what we do at Wellesley. In addition, though, speaking more medically, I think I will bring my focus on the health and well-being of young women to Wellesley, as a lens through which we not only focus on the traditional classroom educating as well as education out in the world, but also ensuring that our young women have a much more holistic view of health and well-being.

On running a women’s college: 

There are many schools that are challenged with recruiting students. For Wellesley, the fact that we are a leading women’s college, in many ways, gives us an edge. We have a very clear mission -- it’s to educate our young women and to provide an outstanding liberal arts education, but it’s also to educate women who are going to make a difference in the world. We really believe that allows us to recruit a whole population of young women who identify and feel passionately about what we do here. So even though the number of women is a bit over 50% of the U.S. population, and thus we have a smaller pool of applicants, we can continue to do extraordinarily well with our numbers.

On student demands for diversity within liberal arts institutions: 

It is making us all better, the fact that we are recognizing what our history brings to the present, how do we come to terms with that history and the fact that we are recognizing that all forms of diversity are very important to our nation and to our world. How do we, in these microcosms of liberal arts colleges, embody those values? Those are really important discussions and I think students have pushed us. And if you look over time, that has always been the role of students. They bring issues to us and they always make us better.

On Wellesley alum, Hillary Clinton, running for President:

What an exciting moment for women, and what an exciting moment for Wellesley. Obviously, we believe that there’s a diversity of beliefs on our campus that we encourage, this is about freedom of discourse and the exchange of ideas. On the other hand, it’s so important in our country to have a woman as the presumptive Democratic nominee. Women across our country, and quite frankly across the world, can see themselves reflected in Hillary Clinton and say that having a female president is a possibility. I think it is a critically important moment in time for our country.

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