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School and Program Updates

Harvard Chan Graduates Urged to ‘Speak Truth to Power’

The message to students at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s 2017 commencement ceremony on May 25 couldn’t have been clearer: In the current political climate, important public health priorities—affordable health care, a clean environment, equity and social justice, even science itself—are under attack.

And the new graduates should make it their mission to fight back.

Commencement speaker Ms. Gina McCarthy, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was frank in expressing concern that current attacks on science—for instance, claims that climate change may not really be a problem—could have serious health repercussions for millions. “Scientists … are not just being asked to conduct really important research, but they’re being told that they have to professionally and personally defend that research,” she said. “So get ready, graduates—you will need to be prepared to speak truth to power, as we said in the 60’s and 70’s.”

Harvard Chan Dean Michelle Williams also spoke about the new political realities facing graduates. “So many things we hold dear are now under attack,” she said, including affordable health care, the primacy of science, and the core democratic values of diversity, free expression, fairness, and inclusion—“principles that belong at the heart of our national identity.”

On a cool, rainy afternoon, 684 students received degrees under a big tent in Kresge courtyard. There were 34 Doctors of Philosophy, eight Doctors of Public Health (the first Harvard Chan students to receive this degree), 59 Doctors of Science, 414 Masters of Public Health (including the first 48 graduates of the School’s new online, on-campus MPH in Epidemiology), 159 Masters of Science, and 10 Masters of Arts. Graduates came from 70 countries and 38 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.

At a reception the evening before Commencement, awards were presented to 20 graduating students, nine faculty, and four staff members.

Shifting political winds

In the wake of the November 2016 presidential election, Harvard Chan students have been directly impacted, Dr. Williams said. She spoke about one student, Dr. Mohammed Al Safadi—a physician who has managed medical projects for Qatar Red Crescent International in Nepal, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and his native Jordan—who was supposed to be in Boston with his classmates to receive his MPH, but whose visa issues barred him from returning to the U.S. after a winter session trip to Jordan.

She praised students for rallying around Dr. Al Safadi—for making sure he had class notes and including him in lectures using Skype—and for responding to political changes in other ways, such as participating in teach-ins, phone banks, and the recent March for Science. “Now, more than ever, we need … to raise the public voice of public health,” she said. “Every one of you is part of this movement.”

Citing the accomplishments of public health activists and visionaries of the past, as well as important work being done now by Harvard Chan alumni, Dr. Williams told the graduates, “Now it is your turn—your time to take up the torch.” 

Environmental champion

Prior to working at the EPA, Ms. McCarthy served as environmental adviser to both Democratic and Republican governors of Massachusetts, and as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection under a Republican governor. At the EPA, she led the creation of the Clean Power Plan—designed to reduce emissions from power plants—and fought for clean water, increases in the use of renewable energy, and improved efficiency standards for homes and buildings. Dean Williams said that, while at the EPA, “Gina and her colleagues held fast to one foundational principle: that science is the bedrock of environmental policymaking.”

“Today, because of science, smoking deaths are down, lead in our kids’ blood has plummeted, the ozone layer is healing, and dangerous levels of NOx [nitrogen oxides], SOx [sulfur oxides], CO [carbon monoxide], PM [particulate matter]—and acid rain—have been declining for decades,” said Ms. McCarthy. “But I need only say ‘Flint, Michigan’ to remind you that there’s a hell of a lot of work left to be done.”

To maintain gains that have already been made and to ensure sound policies for the future, it’s crucial to speak out against the President’s proposed budget cuts to science and research, Ms. McCarthy said. Although some argue that science-driven environmental policies have hurt the economy, the opposite is true, she said. “When you follow the science and the law, history has shown that it’s good for the planet and our pocketbooks, it’s good for consumers and it’s good for companies,” she said.

Ms. McCarthy acknowledged that it may not be easy to take a stand for science. “At times like these, when public officials consider bills that undermine the science, budgets that eliminate critical investments, throw snowballs on the Senate floor to disprove global warming—that was a good one—or take other steps to undermine public health for personal gains, it just has to be a stark reminder of the importance of our obligation to clearly and persistently convey what science tells us, why it matters, and what we can do about it,” she told students.

‘Public health is often invisible’

Student speaker Dr. William Seligman—who received an MPH in health policy and has worked as a physician in southwest England, an intern in the U.S. Senate, and in the U.K. with the Government’s Chief Medical Officer—said that public health “is what unites us today in these difficult times.”

Public health is often invisible, he said. When it’s working—when the water we drink hydrates us and stops our teeth from decaying, or when surveillance workers save scores of lives during infectious disease outbreaks—we don’t hear about it, he said.

But it’s clear when public health isn’t working, he said. “Every day…we see people who call these streets their home. Scarred from sleeping rough, their suffering is a constant reminder of our lack of public health,” he said. Dr. Seligman also pointed out that life expectancy can vary by as much as 30 years between Boston neighborhoods that are only a couple of miles away from each other.

“Tackling problems as great as these requires a diverse group of people with different skills and knowledge,” he said. “And that’s exactly what I see when I look at the people graduating today.”

The wide-ranging benefits of good health

Dr. Sameh El-Saharty, MPH ’91, president of the Harvard Chan Alumni Council, offered greetings to the School’s newest alumni. A medical doctor and international public health specialist, Dr. El-Saharty is program leader for human development in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, the Middle East, and North Africa region at the World Bank, where he has worked for nearly 20 years.

Now more than ever, public health is connected to development of many kinds—human, social, and economic, Dr. El-Saharty said. For example, good health in childhood enhances cognitive functions and reduces school absenteeism and early dropout rates. As healthy children get older, they attain higher educational levels and make valuable economic contributions to society.

“There is strong evidence that investing in health matters for a range of economic outcomes, such as wages, earnings, productivity, labor force participation, retirement, and labor supply,” Dr. El-Saharty said.

He urged the new graduates to think big. “Think how you are going to contribute to human well-being,” he said.

Ms. Karen Feldscher

See photos and links to additional coverage: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/harvard-chan-graduates-urged-to-speak-truth-to-power/

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