Leading Women

Wellesley College

Paula A. Johnson

 Paula A. Johnson had established herself by the early 2000s as a major figure in the field of women’s health, especially in the prevention and treatment of heart disease in women.

The idea that she might end up leading a liberal-arts institution, says Dr. Johnson, who took the top post at Wellesley College in July, “wasn’t part of the trajectory.”

“At times, we take stock of what we’ve done with the support of others, the shoulders we’ve stood on, of who’s come before us,” she says. “Then we begin thinking, What is our next contribution, and in what environment do we want to make it?”

After earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard’s Radcliffe College, Dr. Johnson earned a master’s degree in public health from Harvard along with a medical degree from its medical school.

In 1990, 26 years before she became Wellesley’s first African-American president, she became the first African-American woman to serve as chief medical resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston.

In 2002 she founded the Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and served as its executive director until leaving for Wellesley. She has also left her roles as chief of the division of women’s health at Brigham and Women’s and as a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

When the prospect emerged of taking over at Wellesley, she says, “I became much more excited about what such an opportunity could be.”

She credits the interdisciplinary nature of the field of women’s health with helping prepare her to lead a liberal-arts institution that also emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches. At Brigham and Women’s, she combined methodology and insights from medical science, sociology, psychology, and other fields to arrive at novel modes of investigating and treating women’s health issues.

Similarly, when medical students do case studies, they consider the interplay among various organ systems and fields of medicine. As with the liberal arts, she says, an “intersection of fields” serves to “create new lenses for discovery and teaches our students how to think creatively and critically.”

She says she wants Wellesley’s students to “take advantage of the riches we have to offer” and then go out “into a world where they can truly make a difference.”

Key to Wellesley’s ability to offer a liberal-arts education to its 2,300 undergraduate women, she says, is its commitment to equitable access. Nearly half of this fall’s class are students of color, many of them Asian-American, and 14 percent are first-generation college students.

An endowment of around $2 billion allows the college to retain a need-blind admissions policy, and donations keep flowing in. Wellesley has reached, within one year, the 75-percent mark in a $500-million capital campaign. The effort began under H. Kim Bottomly, who stepped down this summer after leading Wellesley for nine years. — Peter Monaghan

Social Justice and the Arts

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Rick Lowe

As the University of Houston envisioned its new College of the Arts, the conversation naturally turned toward engaging the visual artist and social activist Rick Lowe in the effort. Mr. Lowe, a 2014 MacArthur Fellow known for blending art with direct community engagement, is the first faculty member hired by the college.

As a clinical associate professor of art, the Houston-based artist wants to connect students with existing projects to improve the community and help them understand the importance of art as a tool for social justice.

He has been a visiting artist at other institutions exploring arts engagement — like Amherst College and Stanford University — and has served since 2013 on the National Council on the Arts, which advises the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the first time, he says, that he will root himself at one university.

“So often, students gain arts skills in isolation,” Mr. Lowe said. “We want to create opportunities to understand how they can be applied in a community context” to “raise awareness and open up dialogue.”

In the job he began this fall semester, Mr. Lowe will teach classes and shape a minor for socially engaged art. He will also develop a Third Ward Fellows program to involve graduate students in community efforts in and beyond the adjoining Third Ward, a historically African-American neighborhood that is resisting gentrification.

They will work with Project Row Houses, a nonprofit organization that Mr. Lowe and other Houston artists founded in 1993. The project has turned 40 properties in the ward into centers where artists develop and display their work, sites for cultural programs, and affordable housing.

The new college merges the university’s schools of music, theater and dance, and art. Its mission is to reflect Houston’s diversity and to help the arts serve as a bridge between cultures, said Andrew Davis, interim dean of the college and director of the Moores School of Music. Mr. Lowe’s work “embodies what we want the arts to be in this city and nationally, and the priorities we want to foster on campus.”

Mr. Lowe looks forward to drawing upon the rich relationships he has in the Third Ward. “We have strong ties working within this city,” he said. “That gives us leverage to engage students in a deeper way.” — Kate Stoltzfus

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