Vassar College’s President Elizabeth Bradley

A COVID-Era College President and a Healthcare Policy Leader: Interview with Vassar College’s President Elizabeth Bradley

April 22, 2021 – By Jared Mueller, Director – Mayo Clinic Innovation Exchange

As a leading voice in public health, health equity challenges, and cross-border dynamics in medicine, President Elizabeth Bradley has brought deep expertise to Vassar College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A leading liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, Vassar has engaged deeply with its responsibilities to students, faculty, staff, and its surrounding community.

Given her pre-presidential academic career, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous outlets across the country have sought President Bradley’s insights about public health responses to COVID-19. She has also served on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s working group to reopen New York State following the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Bradley holds a Ph.D. in health policy and health economics from Yale, an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard. Immediately before her 2017 appointment to Vassar, she led the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute and Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy.

She also served as a full professor of political science and of science of technology, and society on Yale’s faculty; was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2017; and is a member of the Council of Foreign Affairs. President Bradley is the co-author of The American Health Care Paradox: Why Spending More is Getting Us Less, and has authored or co-authored more than 300 academic papers.

Q: How did your health policy background inform your response to the pandemic, as the leader of a liberal arts college with nearly 2,500 students?

EB: We knew from the beginning that we would not reopen unless we could keep students, faculty, and staff healthy and safe. That was our most important consideration. My public health background tells me to expect more health crises in the future. We will have other pandemics, challenges arising from climate change, and other health and mental health challenges on a massive scale in the future. We need to understand how new technological tools and emerging threats will change the face of higher education.

Our mission is to deliver the highest quality liberal arts education in a diverse and inclusive setting. This is an educational experience — which is both academic and developmental — to prepare young adults to contribute to a better future, for themselves and for the larger society. My background in public health helps me see the importance of health and wellness to the future of work and the future of higher education. We are teaching and role-modeling for students how to live a healthy life — physically, mentally, and socially.

Vassar and our colleagues in education cannot adopt one-size-fits-all approaches to health, as students come from a range of social and economic backgrounds. We have to provide a tailored approach — an approach that individualizes attention to each student in ways that they will benefit, much as physicians tailor their approaches to distinct patients.

Q: Your 2013 book The American Healthcare Paradox notes that “Medicine alone cannot prevent or attenuate [social determinants of health] risk factors” — such as poverty, isolation, job insecurity, and lack of control in an individual’s personal or work lives. How has your research on social determinants of health influenced your work as a college president?

EB: The pandemic has starkly highlighted the importance of social determinants of health. Long before the pandemic, our community has worked to confront public health challenges in our corner of New York and beyond. For example, Vassar has funded undergraduate Community Fellows who supported Poughkeepsie’s My Brother’s Keeper STEM and Sports Camp — a federally funded program targeted at young boys and men who may be at elevated risk of experiencing youth violence, and other public health challenges facing young people around the country.

We also know that social dynamics on campus play a vital role in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Our VassarTogether working group established a values statement reflective of the collective commitment we made to each other’s health and wellbeing. We have set powerful social expectations for individuals in our community to look out for each other in the context of this pandemic. We call it “We Precedes Me.”

Q: How has Vassar approached the pandemic during this academic year?

EB: Matthew Vassar opened Vassar College on the eve of the U.S. Civil War. The Vassar community also survived through the 1918 flu epidemic and other harrowing challenges, so there is a certain amount of institutional fearlessness in the college’s DNA. We have established cross-functional working groups to ensure that we are meticulous in our planning to follow best practices in public health. The College has made substantial investments in testing and specialized HVAC infrastructure — in addition to adding hand sanitizers, more-frequent cleaning, and other responses you might expect.

Because Vassar is located on 1,000 acres of land and the boundedness of our campus, we were able to create a bubble to help reduce the potential for COVID-19 spread both on campus and in our neighboring communities in Poughkeepsie. College life is not operating as usual: all community members are expected to wear a mask at all times, unless they are alone in a room or are stationary, outside, and at least six feet from everyone else.

Early on we identified “We Precedes Me” as a guiding ethos for taking care of one another, which is perhaps easier to do at a small institution with mostly small classes, where students get to know each other and their faculty well.

Q: What breakthrough innovations in healthcare delivery or technology excite you most?

EB: I am most excited about the use of AI to improve quality of care and reduce medical errors; next I would like to see AI work to improve health equity for people with limited resources. As our collective health depends on creating more equitable systems of care, I am hopeful the next generation will turn their attention to the persistent health inequities across the country and the globe.

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Views expressed by guests are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Mayo Clinic. As a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization, Mayo Clinic does not participate in political activities.