As Elizabeth “Betsy” Bradley, PhD ’96, presented the Yale School of Public Health’s Dean’s Lecture on October 2, she looked out at an audience of familiar faces in a room where she had taken her first classes as a graduate student.
She titled her talk “Getting on the Balcony,” meaning stepping back to see the recurrent patterns in one’s life and career. Bradley, the president of Vassar College, mentioned by name the Yale mentors, colleagues, and former students who helped create the patterns in her own life.
“Colleagues, friends, you really have inspired me,” Bradley said. “I find myself full of gratitude for being in this room.”
Bradley visited Yale as a 2023 Wilbur Lucius Cross Medalrecipient, nominated by her peers for her leading scholarship in public health and unwavering commitment to the health and well-being of local and global communities. Bradley was celebrated later in the day with the other medal recipients at a dinner and award ceremony.
The Wilbur Cross Medal is the highest honor that the Yale Graduate School bestows on its alumni. Named in honor of former Graduate School Dean and Governor of Connecticut Wilbur Lucius Cross, the award was established in 1966 to honor alumni of Yale Graduate School for outstanding achievements.
Before becoming the 11th president of Vassar College, Bradley was a member of the Yale faculty for 20 years. A professor of public health, she was faculty director of Yale’s Global Health Leadership Institute, the Brady-Johnson Professor in the Grand Strategy program, and head of Branford College.
Yale School of Public Health Dean Dr. Megan L. Ranney, MD, introduced Bradley as an influential educator as well as her adviser and mentor. “I cannot tell you how fortunate I feel to be welcoming Dr. Elizabeth Bradley to speak today,” she said. “Although I have just become part of this community officially, I feel as if I've been part of it for much longer, thanks to her.”
The Balcony Tour
Bradley called her talk a balcony tour about transitions – those times when you disengage from previous work and you’re not yet fully engaged in new work. These moments are at the heart of learning, she said. “All things are unencumbered, full of potential, open to what might be new.”
Her first transition occurred when she decided to leave her career in hospital administration at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) against the advice of her supervisors and even her father and to pursue a PhD at Yale.
“I enjoyed my work tremendously, but there were two forces that led me to a transition,” Bradley said. Having turned 30, she wanted to start a family. “I knew no woman in the senior administration at MGH who had children. Not one,” she said.
Bradley also realized that she wanted to help improve health care on a larger scale, but had questions about health and health care that she could not answer with her existing toolkit at the time.
“I went through a sizable transition – with the attendant emotional uncertainty and worries,” she said. Bradley ultimately chose to pursue a PhD at Yale to attain “more tools, theory, and methods to pursue the truth of how we could improve the health care system, already then recognized as hugely expensive, replete with medical errors, and losing the public’s trust,” said Bradley.
“I adored my doctoral training, which began right here in this room,” she said.
A Transition Toward Global Health
After earning her PhD, Bradley became an instructor and then an assistant professor at YSPH. Her next transition came in 2005, when she began what would be a decade of work in global health.
A former student, Kaakpema Yelpaala, MPH ’06, who at the time was an intern at the Clinton Foundation, mentioned Bradley as someone who could work on hospital management issues in Ethiopia. Her subsequent work strengthening health systems in Ethiopia led to the expansion of global health programs at Yale, including the creation of the Global Health Leadership Initiative. Research was the bedrock of her work in global health, she said.
Performing collaborative work with the people in the community that you’re working in is of vital importance in global health, she said later in the lecture.
“I think there are ways in which you can all benefit from the relationship. And if you want to talk to someone who really knows how to do this, you need to talk to Marcella," she said, gesturing toward Marcella Nunez-Smith who was sitting in a front row, “because she really knows how to do this.”
Turning to face the audience, Nunez-Smith replied, “That’s because Betsy taught me.” Nunez-Smith is the inaugural associate dean for Health Equity Research; C.N.H Long Professor of Internal Medicine, Public Health, and Management; and the founding director of the Equity Research and Innovation Center (ERIC), among other roles at Yale.
Social Determinants of Health
In 2012, Bradley co-authored the book “The American Health Care Paradox: Why Spending More is Getting Us Less,” with another former student, Lauren Taylor, MPH ’09. The book discussed the social determinants of health and explained the findings of what happens when investments are made in social services, housing, education, and nutrition.
Translating research into practice and speaking publicly about her work was becoming meaningful to Bradley. “More and more, I felt drawn to the basic questions of creating and sustaining learning,” she said.
In 2016, Vassar reached out to her about its presidency. “I was drawn to the importance of leading an institution to be trusted, to be inclusive, responsive, and accountable to its community – and not just its community, but the public at large.
“Like all my other transitions, I took time to think, to imagine a new focus, to consult my mentors. But over time, I realized I wanted to try. So, I left Yale and moved to Vassar,” she said.
“Many of the methods I worked on, including positive deviance and capacity building in low-income settings, I now feel that I apply every day to liberal arts education.”
Questions and Answers
During a question-and-answer session that followed her talk, Bradley was asked what colleges and universities get wrong in their effort to address global challenges.
“We’re not that trustworthy,” she said. “We have a ton of assets, and we don’t share them with the public. And we write in ways that are inaccessible.
“I also think that we have to take a really hard look at how many resources we need versus how many resources we have. Because I've been in low-income settings that have been transformational for people, and it was due to leadership, community activism, community sense of self and empowerment."
Bradley was also asked why she thought investments in public health have not increased despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the reasons she gave is that medical care in the U.S. is a commodified market, accounting for about 20% of the economy, from which many people profit.
“I think that’s why we haven’t seen a transformation in the United States – because there are too many vested interests, and it feels too good for the people who are benefitting from the medical care system,” she said. “And we’re not a collective culture. We are a culture that lives with 10-to-15% of the population completely marginalized and shut out from accessible health care. … It’s not like that all over the world, but it is like that here.”
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- Elizabeth BradleyFormer faculty