Championing Social Justice

As interim dean of the Heller School, Maria Madison advances strategic priorities rooted in equity and well-being for all

February 06, 2023

Assistant Dean Jasmine Waddell, Interim Dean Maria Madison, Associate Dean Cindy Thomas, PhD'00

By Alix Hackett

Maria Madison’s impressive career has spanned continents and contexts — she’s worked for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, conducted research for biotech firms in Europe, and taught health equity in Rwanda — but in every role, including five years as the Heller School’s associate dean for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity, her focus has been the same: using evidence to create sustainable change that improves people’s health and lives, particularly those from marginalized populations.

That mission, combined with Madison’s intimate knowledge of the Heller community, has prepared her exceptionally well for her latest position: interim dean of the Heller School. Her official start date was July 1, 2022, but if you ask Madison how she’s adjusting, it’s clear that very little adjustment was needed.

“I was always doing work that prepared me for this role,” she said recently. “It makes it really exciting to be at Heller because I’ve been in every pocket, whether it’s international research or domestic programs, so it feels like a culmination of everything coming together.”

As she begins to chart Heller’s post-pandemic path, Madison is building off the priorities set by her predecessor, David Weil, which have guided the school to an enviable position, including consistent top-10 rankings from U.S. News & World Report and a flood of applications for the most recent cohort, resulting in a 9% acceptance rate. Madison’s interim strategic business plan (informed by her ongoing listening tour) lists a continued focus on research, donor partnerships, and career outcomes for graduates, with a new emphasis on addressing community well-being. She describes her overall strategic vision as “equity-focused” while also acknowledging the new challenges introduced by COVID-19.

“I feel exhilarated by this new normal,” she said. “We’ve all experienced something, and we need to respect that and find a way forward. That’s what this strategic plan is all about — it’s revisiting the mission, revisiting our principles, and building on our successes as we redefine ourselves in this new era.”

Supporting mission-driven research

With her training as a global public-health researcher and two decades of experience, Madison believes strongly in the power of evidence-based research to uplift communities and promote social justice. She enthusiastically promotes the wide range of projects underway at Heller, including a study on opioids and the nationwide shortage of naloxone (used to treat overdoses), and another that looks at the disproportionate impact of the GI Bill on Black veterans.

Jasmine Waddell, Maria Madison, and Cindy Thomas speak together while sitting at a table
Jasmine Waddell, Maria Madison, and Cindy Thomas.

As interim dean, Madison plans to tout Heller’s research even more widely: “I need to highlight our impact, highlight the fact that we’re being innovative and bold, and make sure people know we’re meeting the challenges and demands of not just the next generation of students coming in but the changing face of the workforce and of society,” she says.

There is no shortage of successes to share. This fiscal year, more than 100 Heller staff and faculty submitted proposals for over 200 funded research projects, more than 60% of which received federal grants. In September alone, major grants totaling $15 million were awarded to the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy and the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy and Research.

“The research staff and faculty at Heller are quite well positioned in their own fields and have a great record of success,” says Cindy Thomas, PhD’00, Heller’s associate dean for research. “We are all committed to the Heller mission, and we are lucky to do research in an environment that brings creative, brilliant students to contribute to our work.”

Madison sees research at Heller as serving two parallel purposes: producing solid evidence to contribute to topics of social consequence, like improving the quality of health care delivered to pregnant people with disabilities, and serving as a pipeline to train the next generation of ethical researchers. In the latter area, Madison has identified room for continued growth when it comes to addressing the economic and racial inequities that persist in higher education.

“I want to build an equity-centered academic institution where the diversity isn’t just within the student body as a whole, but it’s also in the faculty, in the staff, and in the researchers whom we’re preparing to meet the challenges of tomorrow,” she says. For student researchers in particular, “we need to figure out how to advance these scholars of color without saddling them with debt.”

Expanding impact through donor partnerships

During her two years as director of the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity (IERE) at Heller, Madison experienced firsthand the power of donor partnerships to establish new programs and fuel meaningful research. Under her leadership, the institute received a $1 million gift from the Kapor Center, an Oakland, California-based foundation co-chaired by Heller alumna Freada Kapor Klein, PhD’84, to establish the Racial Justice x Tech Policy project designed to combat systemic racial bias in technology through education, research, and policy.

“Equipping Heller students to bring a racial justice lens to tech policy work and to establish Heller as the preeminent institution conducting and amplifying activist research on bias in tech is a humbling, joyful, and full-circle moment of paying it forward,” Kapor Klein said when the gift was announced in January 2022.
Jasmine Waddell, Maria Madison, and Cindy Thomas speak together while sitting at a table with students
Jasmine Waddell, Maria Madison, and Cindy Thomas.

Already, the initiative is producing exciting results. A team of youth led by the project’s associate director, Janelle Ridley, has created an award-winning computer game that illustrates how youth of color are treated differently by the criminal justice system. Going forward, the initiative will provide ample opportunities for student researchers to gain hands-on training in racial justice and tech policy.

The collaboration fulfills both the Heller School’s mission of advancing social justice and the Kapor Center’s goal of making entrepreneurship and the tech ecosystem more diverse, inclusive, and impactful. As interim dean, Madison plans to continue cultivating mutually beneficial relationships with donors like Kapor Klein in order to expand Heller’s impact, both on and off campus.

“We have an array of ways in which our donors have contributed to our ability to support students and our research,” she explains. “So many of our programs have been built through major gifts: everything from research programs to vulnerability funds that help students struggling with living situations or even food insecurity.”

Empowering graduates’ career success

Another area where Heller continues to shine is career placements for graduates. Among members of this year’s graduating class, an impressive 98% were employed, pursuing graduate studies, or had received competitive fellowships within six months of collecting their Heller diplomas.

Interim Assistant Dean of Career Development Jasmine Waddell attributes a portion of this success to the caliber and career experience of Heller students — two-thirds of incoming students have two or more years of professional experience under their belts before they set foot on campus — but the rest can be chalked up to the “all hands on deck” approach taken by the Heller community when it comes to career development.

“The entire community is dedicated to advancing the professional development and employment outcomes for our extraordinary students,” Waddell says. “It’s not just our office — faculty in all seven programs bring in employers as guest speakers to connect the academic content to career opportunities.”

Waddell’s team runs a wealth of programs, both virtual and in person, designed to connect students with potential employers. There’s an annual career fair, now offered virtually, and a Career Trek to Washington, D.C., among other initiatives. Through the MBA Board Fellows Program, MBA students are invited to serve as nonvoting members of nonprofit boards, giving them hands-on experience and a rare window into the inner workings of organizations.

During her listening tour, Madison has spoken to many alumni who can attest to the career applicability of their Heller degrees. The 98% employment rate reflects this success, she says, but there are still areas where Heller can continue to improve, including by taking an equity-centered approach to its career services.

“We’re training our population to go into diverse placements in the workforce, but we also need to be setting all our students up for success in their careers, and that includes arming them with the ability to interview while representing their fullest identity and their authentic selves,” she says. “That’s an increasing challenge.”

Promoting well-being for all

This fall, Heller students, faculty, and staff returned to campus for in-person classes, meetings and events, some masked, others not. Madison believes strongly in the academic and social benefits of resuming in-person interactions, but she’s also keenly aware of the stress and anxiety many are facing at the prospect of a return to pre-pandemic operations. “Some members of our population are asking if it’s really safe to come back to the classroom or go to that faculty meeting. ‘If I attend by Zoom, will I be judged as not a true community member?’” she relates. “We have to recognize these concerns and also begin to reestablish social norms and relearn how to interact with each other in person.”

Jasmine Waddell, Maria Madison, and Cindy Thomas speak together while sitting at a table with students
Jasmine Waddell, Maria Madison, and Cindy Thomas speak with students.

Madison’s focus on well-being isn’t limited to the pandemic. She wants to lift up and remind the community of the resources available to them, whether it’s counseling for students or retreats and workshops for faculty and researchers. And in keeping with her equity-centered approach, she also wants to expand opportunities for individuals in the community to get to know one another and “dialogue across differences.”

One of her favorite resources is a website developed in collaboration with Brandeis librarians that encourages faculty to learn more about their peers and also engage in self-guided reflection on their own biases and inclinations, and how those may affect their classroom approach. The website has received moderate traffic since its launch a few years ago, but Madison plans to push for more engagement in the months ahead.

“To me, well-being is providing these resources so faculty can authentically connect to these topics before thinking about how it impacts their syllabus,” Madison explains. “We’re going to adapt it for researchers as well.”

Modernizing Heller’s mission

Data from the last five years have shown a steady increase in diversity at Heller, including among international students, and more students are pursuing dual degrees than ever before, says Madison. Interdisciplinary research and cross-institute collaborations have also increased, a reflection, she says, of a world that is increasingly connected across cultures and populations despite the persistent backdrop of racial and economic inequity.

In the midst of this shift, Madison notes that the Heller School’s oft-quoted motto, “knowledge advancing social justice,” could actually be amended to reflect another of the school’s key strengths: empathy.

“I think we all know it has to be ‘knowledge and empathy advancing social justice,’” she says. “The beauty of Heller is its multicultural environment, and empathy is what allows us to grow from that and to learn from people with different backgrounds than our own. It’s what will continue to carry us forward to meet the headwinds of tomorrow.”