Students, Media Speak with Dr. Paula A. Johnson About Her Appointment as Wellesley's 14th President

February 12, 2016
Students Shivani Kuckreja ’16 and Charlotte Harris ’16 interview Dr. Paula A. Johnson, Wellesley's 14th President

Yesterday the College announced the appointment of Dr. Paula A. Johnson as Wellesley’s 14th president. There will be many opportunities for the community to get to know Johnson between now and when she assumes her official duties on July 1. Students Shivani Kuckreja '16 and Charlotte Harris '16 were the first to sit down with Johnson; last week they videotaped an interview with Johnson at her home. Johnson called the conversation her "first true introduction as the next president of Wellesley College."

Johnson, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., talked about growing up in the "turbulent" 1960's and 70's, and the path that took her to Harvard (then called Harvard-Radcliffe), and ultimately to her role at Wellesley.

"Today is a moment in time when women's leadership is finally be recognized as being transformative to the world—to health, to economies, and to education...what an opportunity for Wellesley, given the outstanding faculty, amazing students and staff," Johnson said to the students. "My life has been devoted to women, to their health, to their education and to their development and really that is what calls me to Wellesley."

Johnson, an internationally renowned and innovative leader, currently serves as chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she founded and is executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology. She will be the first African-American to serve as president of Wellesley College.

Kuckreja, noting that Wellesley is one of the most diverse campuses in the United States, asked Johnson how she would lead and foster that diversity. Johnson called diversity at Wellesley an aspect of the College that is core to who we are and who we will be moving forward. She said she is thinking about not only maintaining and expanding student diversity, but also about faculty and, she said, "how they do or don’t mirror our student body…and what are our opportunities to ensure that this amazing school also be a real pipeline for faculty as they develop through the ranks?"

The three discussed athletics (Johnson said she looks forward to attending and cheering on The Blue at sporting events), her mother-in-law Phyllis Rosenthal Sands '46 (who Johnson will join at reunion this summer), her husband's attendance of Wellesley (watch the video to learn more about that), and her extensive connections to Wellesley alumnae.

Of the alumnae she said, "What an amazing and august group, beginning with Diana Chapman Walsh '66 [Wellesley's former president] to doctors JudyAnn Bigby '73 and Vivian Pinn '62 to Adrienne Germain '69, and, of course, Ophelia Dahl DS'94, these are all women who I have tremendous respect for, not only for their brilliance but for the paths that they've carved. Each of them has changed the landscape in her field and beyond."

Kuckreja and Harris, who were both members of the Presidential Search Committee, asked Johnson what she learned through the search process. Johnson said she was able to see how faculty are "not just keepers of the liberal arts tradition but how much they embody and embrace the mission," and, addressing Kuckreja and Harris, added, "I knew the students were outstanding and diverse, but getting to know you through the process, your hopes, dreams, and passions, and hearing your voices...raised my knowledge and awareness of how special a Wellesley education was."

Kuckreja and Harris had the opportunity to ask Johnson some additional questions beyond what’s shown in the interview. Those questions and answers will be available as a series of video shorts on the College’s YouTube channel dubbed "Getting to Know #WellesleyPrez." The first short was published yesterday; the remainder will be introduced gradually next week and the following.

The announcement of Johnson's appointment also attracted significant attention from the media, including the Associated Press. Speaking with the Boston Globe, Johnson said that she feels a special responsibility as the college’s first African-American leader, and believes that student diversity is one of Wellesley’s strengths. WBUR also highlighted Dr. Johnson's commitment to diversity and to broadening Wellesley's role in the world. She later spoke with the WBUR program Radio Boston.

"I am honored and humbled to be asked to serve as Wellesley’s president," Johnson said. "I view this presidency as the capstone of my career, which has been devoted to the advancement of women through education and faculty development, and by working to improve their health and well-being."