by Chris Killian
Today Kalamazoo College’s Jeff Crowley ’88 is the Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. In 1981 he was a 16-year-old Grand Rapids (Mich.) high school student. That year the world was first encountering a devastating new disease of unknown causes that mystified the medical and research communities. In the years that followed, HIV/AIDS would grow into a pandemic that would prompt fear and prejudice in seemingly equal measure to the compassion and public health (and medical research) mobilization they often hampered. And in those same years Crowley’s personal journey would lead him halfway around the world, to the halls of some of his country’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, and to one of the top policy positions in the White House.
In the early 1980s, when he began looking for a college to attend, he wanted to find a smaller school that was student-focused. He didn’t have to look far.
As soon as he learned about Kalamazoo College’s foreign study program, the decision to attend “K” was an easy one, he said. He did his study abroad in Strasbourg, France.
“My education at “K” made a huge impact on my life,” he said. “There was an expectation that you were to be involved in your community, wherever that community might be after graduation.”
One of his first post-graduation communities was the nation of Swaziland, located in southern Africa, where he taught high school science as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1989-1991
Crowley was in Swaziland when the country was making a major push to expand access to secondary education by opening many new high schools throughout the nation. This effort was challenged by a “brain drain,” as Swaziland’s teachers left the country for the higher wages of South Africa, he said.
Crowley tried to fill in the gaps as best he could. But his work would end up going beyond just teaching the elements of a high school science curriculum.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s – long before the world was awakened to the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa – AIDS was projected to become a major issue in Swaziland, but people there really didn’t believe the disease to be real, Crowley said. There were not a lot of people who were recognized to be sick or dying of HIV/AIDS, even though they were.
School children told him that AIDS stood for: “American Ideas for Decreasing Sex,” he said.
When he returned to Africa in 2000 to attend an international AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, he visited the mother of his best friend he met while in Swaziland.
“She told me: ‘They’re dropping like flies’” from AIDS, he said.
That trip was made after Crowley earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health and a stint as the deputy executive director for programs at the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA), overseeing the organization’s public education, community development and training activities.
From 2000-2009, Crowley was a senior research scholar at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute and a senior scholar at the university’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. His primary areas of focus involved Medicaid and Medicare policy issues and their impact on people with disabilities and chronic conditions, including people living with HIV/AIDS.
His body of work and experience led President Obama to tap him to direct the Office of National AIDS Policy and become senior advisor on disability policy. Those two roles make him the president’s lead advisor on HIV/AIDS policy with responsibilities for coordinating disability and health policy issues
"My education at "K" made a huge impact on my life. There was an expectation that you were to be involved in your community, wherever that community might be after graduation."for the White House Domestic Policy Council.
In other words, the post-graduation community he now serves is his entire country.
Crowley’s office in the hulking Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a stone’s throw from the White House, is relatively Spartan, given his title. A large picture of himself and Obama in the Oval Office hangs on a wall across from his desk, situated by a window that looks out onto the Washington Monument and the National Mall.
President Obama made a commitment to develop the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States – which was released in July– with the hope of cutting new cases of HIV infection by 25 percent over the next 5 years.. Additionally, the United States invests about $19.5 billion to fight HIV/AIDS in the United States each year– an “amazing commitment,” Crowley said.
New infections now number about 56,000 per year, down from the 130,000 annual new infections seen several years ago, Crowley said.
“The numbers are headed in the right direction,” he said. “But they’re still too high.”
More work needs to be done in the effort to eradicate HIV/AIDS from the United States and the World, that’s a certainty.
But Crowley, a man who has the ear of the most powerful man on the planet, is doing his level best to guide the nation and world toward a future devoid of AIDS.
“We need to be appropriately aspirational, but rational,” he said. “We can beat this.”
A Jeff Crowley chronology: (1) with Philip Thomas, Professor Emeritus of Economics, and his wife Carol; (2) on LandSea; (3) at Christmas; (4) Commencement, second from right; (5) in Africa; (6) relaxing with friends, second from left; (7) and with his current boss.