Citing Toxic Culture and Administrator Departures, Harvard School of Public Health Faculty Repeatedly Weighed Voting No Confidence in Dean
Megan M. Ross — Crimson Photographer
On Dec. 20, 2018, around 40 faculty filtered into the Dean’s Conference Room at the Harvard School of Public Health for an unusual discussion.
The school’s faculty council called the open meeting after reading the results of its annual Faculty Priority Survey, which revealed serious internal concerns about a spate of recent departures from positions at the school, insufficient faculty governance, and a perceived lack of transparency and communication between the dean’s office and faculty. Michelle A. Williams, the school’s dean, was not present.
After discussing the results of the survey, the faculty prepared to take a dramatic action in her absence: a vote of no confidence in her leadership.
Harvard faculty last made such a move in 2005, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted no confidence in then-University President Lawrence H. Summers, prompting his eventual resignation. Had the School of Public Health faculty done the same, the December meeting would have been a public rebuke to the leader of one of the top public health schools in the world.
Among the dozens of faculty present at the meeting, multiple professors argued for voting no confidence. Others expressed reservations about the optics of censuring Harvard’s first black dean of a professional school and the school’s first female dean.
Eventually, Ashish K. Jha, the school’s Dean for Global Strategy and a Health Policy professor, argued against chastising Williams, saying it would harm the school institutionally. The faculty ultimately decided not to take the vote.
School of Public Health spokesperson Todd Datz wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson that Jha eventually brought the conversation to Williams’s attention, prompting her to hold a town hall with “the School community” to address the survey.
“The Dean understands that there will always be, as there should, robust discussions and differences of opinion around many issues,” Datz wrote.
Still, according to 12 current and former faculty, administrators, and other staff, turmoil at the School of Public Health and concerns about Williams’s leadership didn’t start with the meeting, or end after the vote was averted.
In interviews with The Crimson, those faculty, staff, and administrators said they believe the School of Public Health has developed a toxic culture that they attribute to Williams and her deputy Michael J. Grusby. Faculty and staff who take issue with the pair say they do not feel comfortable bringing complaints to human resources because Grusby oversees it, and that they have broader concerns about his demeaning and disrespectful treatment of faculty and staff.
Over the past two years, more than 40 faculty, administrators, and staff have either stepped down from leadership roles, left the school, or left Harvard altogether. That number includes at least 17 people who left senior administrative posts — either staff who left the school, or faculty who left administrative positions but remain at the School of Public Health as professors. It also includes at least 14 faculty who left the University.
As the number of departures increased, School of Public Health faculty and staff say Williams and Grusby consolidated power. Grusby currently serves as the Executive Dean for Administration, acting Dean for Academic Affairs, and Senior Vice Dean for Institutional Planning and Policy — a position created under Williams’s deanship. Several faculty and staff also questioned whether Williams and her deputies have done enough to support diversity.
Current and former faculty and staff said they have repeatedly made members of Harvard’s central administration aware of concerns about the school. Two faculty members said they personally communicated their concerns to University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76. Asked whether Garber communicated those concerns to Grusby and Williams, Datz would say only that Williams “routinely discusses matters related to the leadership of the School with the Provost and administrators in the Provost's Office.”
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain confirmed in an email that faculty have met with Garber about the School of Public Health, adding that it is not unusual for faculty from any of Harvard’s schools to do so. Garber wrote in a statement that he “regularly” meets with Williams and the other Harvard deans about “a number of matters, including the challenges and opportunities facing the School.”
“It is clear that [Williams] is dedicated to the success of the Harvard Chan School's community,” Garber wrote. “She is thoughtful and resolute in her efforts to strengthen the School and magnify the impact of the work of its faculty, staff and students.”
Nearly all of the 17 people interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they said they fear retaliation — including tenured faculty and people who have left the school — citing Williams’s influence in the public health sector. Several said they believe Williams has punished faculty and staff in the past for expressing dissent, creating what multiple affiliates termed a “culture of retaliation.”
When Williams became dean of the School of Public Health in July 2016, she named Karen M. Emmons dean for academic affairs, charging her with overseeing all of the school’s academic, research, and educational operations. Emmons’s responsibilities included managing faculty affairs, student affairs, diversity and inclusion, and research strategy and development.
Emmons left a prestigious position as Vice President for Research and Director of the Kaiser Foundation Research Institute to begin the deanship. She took office in November 2016, according to emails obtained by The Crimson and interviews with faculty and staff.
Just fifteen months later, in February 2018, Williams sent an email to the school announcing Emmons’s departure.
Calling Emmons a “valued friend,” Williams wrote that Emmons was leaving the deanship because she missed being a researcher and educator. She added that Emmons decided to “accelerate the transition,” rather than step down at the end of the year, due to “family health issues.”
Three professors said in interviews that Emmons’s loss was a blow to the faculty, calling her a competent administrator and expressing concerns about whether conflicts with Williams prompted her abrupt departure. Emmons declined to comment for this story.
In the same email, Williams announced that, during the “interim period,” Grusby would serve as acting dean for academic affairs. Nearly two years later, he still holds that position.
The acting deanship grew Grusby’s already substantial portfolio at the school. In addition to serving as a professor of Molecular Immunology, he also oversees all financial management and compliance issues.
Several current and former faculty, staff, and administrators expressed dismay that Grusby concurrently manages the school’s finances, administrative offices like HR, and academic affairs.
Three senior professors told The Crimson they believe that the role of the academic dean should be to represent the interests of the faculty, even at the expense of the interests of the Dean and other administrators. They worried that Grusby would not be able to serve as a check and balance to Williams.
Datz acknowledged that the school’s administration is aware of concerns about Grusby in an emailed statement. He wrote the concern “has been heard and has been discussed with faculty at multiple meetings.”
Ten current and former faculty, staff, and administrators also said they were concerned about Grusby’s management style, calling him disrespectful and dismissive in his interactions with faculty and staff. One senior faculty member called him “uniformly despised.”
At one point, the School of Public Health's Academic Council — a leadership body comprised of the chairs of the school’s nine departments — held a meeting where attendees raised concerns about Grusby’s behavior and management style, according to two faculty who were present. Williams gave what one termed a “chilling rebuttal” to the concerns, saying removing Grusby was out of the question.
Current and former faculty, staff, and administrators said that because Grusby oversees the HR department, they do not feel comfortable bringing up concerns about him and Williams to that office.
At one point, a former School of Public Health administrator turned to external authorities with complaints.
In late 2018, the administrator brought a case against the School of Public Health before the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, arguing that she faced a hostile work environment that caused her to leave her job. The office agreed, according to hearing documents obtained by The Crimson.
Findings of fact in the office’s decision state that, after believing a subordinate had been “unprofessional” and “aggressive” toward her, the administrator brought concerns to HR multiple times, but was ignored.
The decision also states that the administrator believed Williams shielded the subordinate from harm and failed to communicate with the administrator about her regular job duties, despite the fact that she reported directly to Williams.
The office concluded that the former administrator’s workplace issues continued to worsen until she resigned and that attempts to preserve her job “would have been futile because she believed that the issues she was dealing with were systemic with the employer.”
“The claimant made numerous attempts to improve conditions at work, but was ultimately left with the conclusion that nothing was going to change, unless it was to change for the worse (as had been happening),” the decision reads. “Therefore, the claimant established by substantial and credible evidence that she had a reasonable workplace complaint.”
Datz declined to comment on the case, writing that the school does not comment on personnel matters and adding that “all issues brought forward are taken seriously and addressed as appropriate.”
The School of Public Health has seen an unusual number of vacancies under Williams and Grusby’s leadership compared to other Harvard schools.
According to Harvard’s public job postings, the school currently has 33 open academic positions. By contrast, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences — Harvard’s largest faculty, which boasts more than five times the number of faculty that the School of Public Health has and more than triple the total number of people employed — has just 32 open academic positions. Every other Harvard professional school has fewer than ten open academic positions posted on the University’s public job listings.
At least eight female faculty and four underrepresented minority faculty have left the School of Public Health over the past two years. The latter figure represents more than a third of the number of underrepresented minority ladder faculty at the School of Public Health reported in Harvard’s 2019 Faculty Development and Diversity Report, which was released in April.
According to Datz, the School of Public Health’s high staff turnover rate compared to other Harvard schools might be explained by the fact that the school is more reliant than others on sponsored research and that many research and administrative staff working on sponsored research projects have set term appointments.
Some former School of Public Health affiliates said they left for personal reasons and had good working relationships with Williams.
Cassandra A. Okechukwu, a former tenure-track professor in the school’s Social and Behavioral Sciences department, said she approved of Williams’s performance as dean, citing “big gutsy policies” like increasing the amount of salary support the school provides to junior faculty. She said she left out of a desire to work outside academia, rather than concerns specific to the School of Public Health’s leadership.
Reginald Tucker-Sealy, a former Social and Behavioral Sciences tenure-track professor, said in an interview that he had a “great” working relationship with Williams, whom he called a mentor.
“I felt like any time I needed to talk to the dean, she was always available,” Tucker-Sealy said.
Several current and former administrators and other staff said they believe Williams has failed to support women and people of color in her role as dean.
In 2017, the School of Public Health’s Committee on the Advancement of Women Faculty commissioned an internal report to determine whether the school had a gender pay gap. The committee requested a copy of the confidential report from the dean’s office multiple times, but the office has not provided the committee with a copy, according to a faculty member with direct knowledge of the situation.
Datz wrote that the report is confidential because it contains faculty salary data. He added that Williams discussed the results at a faculty meeting.
According to a copy of the report obtained by The Crimson, the School of Public Health did not have statistically significant differences in salary by gender. The report did, however, reveal what it characterized as a “concerning” pay gap separating faculty belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups from white faculty. Minority faculty of all ranks were paid less on average than white faculty. That pay difference was statistically significant for Asian faculty.
The report recommended that the school undertake further investigation to “understand these differences and determine a corrective course of action.”
Williams wrote in an emailed statement that recruiting and supporting faculty, students, and staff from underrepresented backgrounds is “ongoing and critical” work to the school’s mission.
“Equity, justice, and inclusion are core tenets of public health—and the values that guide us as a school. As Dean, I am personally committed to upholding these values and ensuring that the Harvard Chan School is a safe and welcoming community—as well as one that reflects the communities we aim to serve,” she wrote.
After the December 2018 council meeting, faculty continued to discuss privately the possibility of a vote of no confidence, according to two faculty and two staff members privy to those conversations.
Others turned to external sources to express their concerns. In November 2019, an anonymous group identifying themselves as nine junior faculty emailed a letter to former University of Michigan Public Health Dean Kenneth E. Warner, who chairs the Harvard School of Public Health’s visiting committee. They alerted him to what they described as “troubling times” at the school. The visiting committee is charged with periodically reviewing the school and reporting its findings to the Board of Overseers, the University’s second-highest governing body.
In a copy of their letter to Warner obtained by The Crimson, the faculty expressed concerns about Grusby’s behavior, management style, and “large amounts of power,” adding that they feel Williams has failed to address the perceived issues.
Warner declined to comment on the issues raised in the letter or on the visiting committee’s December 2019 visit, writing in an email that it would be “inappropriate” to do so.
“Our committee’s charge is to develop a report for the Provost and the Board of Overseers. The report will also go to the Dean,” he wrote.
The faculty wrote to Warner that they believe a vote of no confidence may be the “only recourse” to address their concerns. They added that they recently met with Jha — the Global Programs dean who averted the previous no confidence vote — who advised them against pursuing such a measure.
“As junior faculty, it has been made clear to us that if we speak up or complain about any issues, our promotion will be in danger. We all act and speak accordingly. Some excellent junior faculty have decided it is time to leave,” the letter reads.
The letter’s authors added that they believe the issues plaguing the school are an open secret.
“The truth is, Dean Warner, that everyone knows. All of it. Michael Grusby's behavior, Michelle Williams’ silence and support and her desire to rule through fear,” the letter reads.
“Fear. That's what describes HSPH faculty life today,” they wrote. “We wonder if you and the rest of the Visiting Committee will be given the chance to notice.”
Editor’s Note: Molly C. McCafferty currently serves as an Associate Managing Editor of The Crimson’s 147th Guard. While The Crimson does not typically publish news content authored by current leadership, McCafferty primarily reported this article during her time as a staff writer.