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Dr. Michael Lu returns to Berkeley as new public health dean

Michael C. Lu MD, MS, MPH ’92, a national visionary in maternal and child health, will join the UC Berkeley School of Public Health as dean effective July 1, Chancellor Carol Christ and EVCP Paul Alivisatos announced today. A graduate of the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, Lu brings back to Berkeley his decades of expertise as a professor of public health as well as obstetrics and gynecology, his proven track record of academic and national executive leadership, and a deep-rooted passion for health equity and social justice.

“Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Lu has remained a staunch advocate for Berkeley and our School of Public Health, and he impressed the search committee and SPH community with his passion for public health, extensive experience as an administrator, and collaborative leadership style,” wrote Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos in a statement released today. “We are certain that he will continue to elevate the School’s stature as a hugely influential, top-caliber institution celebrated for its education, research, and community engagement.”

Dr. Lu will succeed Professor William Dow, who served as interim dean of the School while an open, national search was conducted.

“I am thrilled to welcome Professor Lu back to Berkeley,” says Interim Dean Dow. “His impact on public health has already been huge as both an academic thought leader and as a government agency leader. Our School’s mission is to improve population health, especially for the most vulnerable, and he has the perfect background to lead the school to the next level of impact in the coming years as a premier school of public health.”

Dr. Lu is currently professor and senior associate dean for academic, student and faculty affairs at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University. He was formerly the director of the federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB) in the Obama Administration. Now as dean of Berkeley Public Health, he plans to transform the School into the innovation hub of the world for public health.

“I believe public health can be a greater force for good in the world, but not by doing more of the same,” Lu says. “I want our School to be where the next generation’s biggest thinkers and difference-makers, the most effective change agents, and the most transformative leaders come from.”

Track record of effective leadership

As senior associate dean at the Milken Institute, Lu has been dedicated to improving the student experience and providing leadership and vision for the academic mission. Since joining GW in 2017, he helped launch a major expansion of the undergraduate programs, overhauled the MPH curriculum and strengthened doctoral training, instituted a Master Teachers Academy, and expanded financial aid.

His success in this short timeframe came through working collaboratively with campus leaders, faculty, students, and staff—a leadership model he intends to continue at Berkeley.

From 2012 to 2017, Lu directed the MCHB—a federal bureau with an annual budget of $1.25 billion, a staff of more than 200, and a portfolio of nearly 100 federal programs that serve more than 57 million citizens annually. He transformed key federal programs in maternal and child health, and launched major initiatives to reduce maternal, infant, and child mortality in the United States. He worked with diverse stakeholders including the White House, Congress, governors, state legislators, and public health community leaders and advocates. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded him the Hubert H. Humphrey Award for Service to America, one of its highest honors.

Lifelong dedication to reducing maternal, infant, and child mortality

Prior to his public service in Washington D.C., Lu spent more than 20 years with the University of California, as a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, an ob-gyn resident at UC Irvine, and a professor of obstetrics-gynecology and public health at UCLA. During his 15 years at UCLA, he helped bring in more than $50 million in research and training grants and published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. He co-directed the residency training program and medical student clerkship in ob-gyn, as well as a leadership training grant and a transdisciplinary center in maternal and child health.

As an obstetrician, Dr. Lu has attended over a thousand births, and has been voted one of the Best Doctors in America since 2005.

While at UCLA, Lu co-led the design and implementation of the NIH-funded Community and Child Health Network, a multi-site study of maternal and child health disparities, which enrolled and prospectively followed a cohort of over 4,000 men and women from predominantly low-income, African American and Latino households in five cities. He also led the design and implementation of the Los Angeles Mommy and Baby Survey, a population-based survey of more than 4,000 mothers in Los Angeles County designed to identify the multilevel determinants of racial-ethnic disparities in birth outcomes. And he co-founded the Best Babies Zone Initiative, with principal investigator Cheri Pies, clinical professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Lu’s most significant scholarly contribution has been the study of racial-ethnic disparities in birth outcomes and his leadership in developing, testing, and translating a unified theory on the origins of maternal and child health disparities based on the life course perspective. In the United States, black infants are more than twice as likely to die within the first year of life as white infants, and black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth as white women. For decades, researchers and policymakers alike have attributed these disparities to differential risk behaviors or healthcare access during pregnancy, and promoted improving prenatal care access as our national strategy for addressing these disparities. In 2003, Dr. Lu and his colleague Neal Halfon challenged the prevailing paradigm by proposing a new theory on the origins of maternal and child health disparities using the life course perspective. Disparities in pregnancy outcomes, they proposed, are the consequences of not only differential risk exposures during pregnancy but, more importantly, differential health trajectories across the life course. Achieving health equity, therefore, will require not only improving prenatal care access, but assuring the conditions in which all women, children, and families can be healthy across the life course. Since its publication, the paper has been cited more than 800 times and is credited for bringing about a paradigm shift in maternal and child health research, practice, and policy.

Lu’s research has been grounded in the principles of health equity and social justice, and he plans to steward and further these shared values as dean.

“In practice and policy, I want our School to be leading the world in advancing health equity and social justice,” he says. “That is what Berkeley has always stood for, and I plan to be an activist dean in championing our mission in California and around the world.”

A return to Berkeley

The School of Public Health honored Lu with the Alumnus of the Year Award in 2016, and he also received the campus-wide Influential Alumni Award in 2018.

While at Berkeley as a Joint Medical Program student, Lu was inspired by, and contributed to, the groundbreaking work the School has done in social epidemiology and community-engaged research and practice. He led the founding of the Suitcase Clinic, a student-run clinic for homeless and indigent people in Berkeley and surrounding areas, which is still operated by JMP students today. That experience broadened his vision of what being a doctor is all about, and opened his eyes to social determinants of health, and contributed to him finding his calling. “The School has given me so much, and made me who I am today,” he says.

Lu has continued service as a way of life throughout his career and looks forward to his service as dean at “one of the most intellectually exciting places to be in the world.”

“I can think of nothing more exciting than to come back and lead a school that has meant so much to me,” he says. “And I can think of nothing more important than to come home to work with a brilliant faculty in finding solutions to some the world’s biggest problems and to help educate some of the best and brightest students in the world to prepare them to lead the future of public health.”