University of Minnesota bets new dean will reinvigorate Medical School

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2014 - 9:45 PM
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Nursing student Samantha Boucher studied proper injection techniques and procedures during class at the University of Minnesota.

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When Dr. Brooks Jackson arrives Monday as the new dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, the Johns Hopkins pathologist will tap a reservoir of optimism that he’s the right person to lead the U back into the top echelon of American academic health and research institutions.

The optimism is born in part from frustrated hopes. The U’s well-regarded medical school, which trains most of Minnesota’s physicians, has spent two decades battling tight budgets, ethics scandals and a strained relationship with its hospital partner, Fairview Health Services. Two years ago, a team of consultants hired by university President Eric Kaler said a “malaise” had fallen over one of the state’s most important medical and scientific institutions.

A dozen years ago another pathologist, Dr. Deborah Powell, took over as dean amid similar acclaim and high hopes, only to see the school continue its downward slide in the national competition for research grants. She lost her dean’s chair seven years later.

Today, however, observers across the Twin Cities say Jackson is arriving at an opportune time. The med school is climbing again in national research rankings, has socked away money to recruit new faculty heavy hitters, and, educators say, is well positioned to be a leader in the new landscape created by federal health reform.

“They got a little off track, and I think now they’re back on track,” said Hubbard Broadcasting CEO Stanley Hubbard, who served on a special board of outside advisers to the school. “I think it’s terrific, what they’re doing.”

Kaler says the school has landed the leader it needs.

“He comes from arguably the best medical school in the country. He has a great reputation as a researcher. He has a lot of experience with excellence and knowledge of what it takes to move an organization to the highest levels.”

History of firsts

It’s hard to overstate the school’s importance to Minnesota and its medical science community. It brought international acclaim to the state in the 1950s, when Drs. C. Walton Lillehei and John Lewis performed the world’s first open-heart surgery and, with Earl Bakken, invented the portable cardiac pacemaker. A decade later, the world’s first bone-marrow transplant was performed there by Dr. Robert Good, considered the father of modern immunology, spawning transplant and stem cell innovations that continue today.

The school is also a vital training ground. Seventy percent of Minnesota’s doctors either graduated from it or had their residency training there. It anchors the broader Academic Health Center, a $1.6 billion behemoth that operates three hospitals, trains hundreds of nurses, pharmacists, dentists and other health workers, and brings some $400 million in research funding to Minnesota every year.

At the same time, serious challenges remain. In the mid-1990s, the school was ranked 15th nationally in the competition for critically important grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH); today, after sinking to 32nd place, it has rebounded, but only to No. 25.

Kaler said competition for NIH funding is likely to intensify, and federal funding for graduate medical education remains uncertain, leaving medical residency slots in short supply.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson, another member of the outside advisers board, says the school also must address the spiraling tuition costs that are plaguing all of higher education. Carlson, a longtime booster of the U, said higher education as a whole is in a crisis because it’s built on an unsustainable economic model that relies on students taking on crushing debt. Tuition at the medical school — third highest among public medical schools in 2011 — should be cut by 80 percent, Carlson said.

Still, Kaler is hopeful.

“I don’t mean to paint a completely rosy picture,” Kaler said. “But I think there are reasons to be optimistic.”

Others echoed Kaler’s view.

“I think this is a very encouraging time,” said Dr. Bobbi Daniels, CEO of the University of Minnesota Physicians, an independent group practice with more than 50 clinics that spin off about $40 million a year for the U’s academic mission.

Daniels said a new agreement hammered out between the physicians, Fairview and the U has everyone sharing the same vision for the first time in their 17-year relationship. A new, $160 million clinic and research building near Interstate 94 and Huron Boulevard will allow the UM Physicians and Fairview to blend research with patient care and promote crucial collaboration among doctors, nurses, public health workers and scientists.

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