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James Wolff Honored with a 2018 Metcalf Award

Through his teaching, SPH prof seeks to make students global health consultants


The HOPE House, a charity in India aiding needy children, had a need of its own: its hostel for vulnerable teens, most of them girls, required better management of its food inventory so that it could nourish its charges without overstocking.

“It’s a difficult problem,” says James Wolff, in part because the inventory manager is “not literate.” But students in the School of Public Health scholar’s Implementing Health Programs in Developing Countries class built a mobile app for HOPE’s managers, allowing them to better track the inventory.

Students get hands-on learning with a real NGO and the NGO gets management advice on the house. Student evaluations rave about Wolff, associate professor of global health at the School of Public Health, and his courses: “thought-provoking,” “practical,” and “passionate.”

Those evaluations helped Wolff win one of this year’s two Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Other foreign NGOs Wolff has hooked up students with this semester work in such diverse places as Uganda, Peru, Tanzania, Bethlehem (yes, that Bethlehem), and Malawi. In that last nation, his students helped develop an app for technicians to track the maintenance status of refrigeration equipment needed to preserve vital vaccines.

Wolff is an MD who may be an odd duck in his profession: he enjoys the administration side of medicine. During a stint as a Peace Corps physician in Malawi, he says, he saw firsthand that medical care may come to naught if its delivery is hamstrung by inefficiency or lack of resources.

He also worked at Management Sciences for Health (MSH), a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit consulting firm, where his projects included advising Morocco’s health ministry in the early 1980s. (Talk about getting your hands dirty—he even worked on improving the ministry’s management of its fleet of autos.)

“Wolff easily fulfills all of the criteria” for the Metcalf, says the nominating letter from two colleagues in SPH’s global health department, Taryn Vian, a clinical professor, and Frank (Rich) Feeley, an associate professor.

“Students report spending many hours per week outside class on the projects and assignments” in his classes, they write. “We recommend that students do not try to do more than one ‘Wolffy course’ per semester because of how challenging and time-consuming the courses are.”

His Peace Corps experience and consulting sired Wolff’s interest in global health care and how to get it to patients effectively, efficiently, and sustainably.

“In these courses, we work with real public health agencies and clients,” Wolff says. “When you work with a client, it takes it out of the context of school. So it’s not just an assignment for your professor or an assignment for school. You’re actually working for an organization and helping improve people’s lives.”

He says that one of his students this semester, a Nigerian physician who’d only previously thought about prescribing medicines and counseling patients on their use, wrote about what she’s learned from class: prescribing is “just the end of the cycle of selecting the right drugs to buy, purchasing them at a good price, getting them to the facilities, and keeping permanent, continuous stock of them.

In Wolff, students have a well-connected broker of partnerships with overseas organizations. Besides MSH, he has consulted for the US Agency for International Development, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank, among others. The upshot is that students develop “a very powerful relationship with their client,” Wolff says. “They’re talking to them all the time. They’re deepening their understanding of the organization and the context in which it’s working.

“It takes a village to deliver health care,” he says. “It’s not just the provider at the end. It’s all of the things that happen before that.”

Wolff, who earned his degrees through an Ivy League trifecta of Dartmouth, Harvard, and Columbia, came to BU as an adjunct faculty member in 1986, joining the full-time faculty in 2006. He’s a past winner of the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor bestowed by SPH.

A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.

The winner of this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching is Brooke Blower, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history. Elizabeth Co, a CAS senior lecturer in biology, is the recipient of the other Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Find more information about Commencement here. 

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments on James Wolff Honored with a 2018 Metcalf Award

  • Chris Paal on 05.15.2018 at 7:54 am

    Congratulations, Wolffy! I am very glad to see your long-time great teaching honored.

  • Jennifer Teig von Hoffman on 05.15.2018 at 8:40 am

    Congratulations Wolffie! Glad to see your many years of dedicated service recognized!

  • Joan Bragar on 05.15.2018 at 9:11 am

    Bravo Wolffie!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Paul Ashigbie on 05.15.2018 at 12:41 pm

    Congratulations, Wolffy! Well deserved!

  • Yiyao Barnoon on 05.15.2018 at 2:37 pm


  • Devina (Patel) Shah on 05.16.2018 at 8:44 am

    Congratulations, Wolffy!! Why am I not surprised?? :) You were one of my favourite professors at BUSPH, and an amazing teacher! Well deserved!

  • Irini Albanti on 05.17.2018 at 5:04 pm

    Congratulations! Well deserved!

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