A new president reassures UConn Health staff

FARMINGTON–Susan Herbst’s opening line drew a laugh from UConn Health Center faculty and staff.

“I’m the new president of UConn, and I do do other things besides athletics,” she said Monday, three days after the high-profile exit of Athletic Director Jeff Hathaway.

Athletics can cause university presidents headaches, and so can academic medical centers. The UConn Health Center–which includes the university’s medical and dental schools, research labs and John Dempsey Hospital–has been a challenge in recent years, with financial troubles, outdated facilities and difficulty securing any plan for its future.

Herbst at UCHC 8-22-11

Herbst and Nicholls take questions

But Herbst’s visit to the health center, which she described as a chance to answer questions and solicit feedback, came in a new context. The health center’s future is largely mapped out, with the passage this year of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $864 million plan, called Bioscience Connecticut, to renovate and expand the health center with a goal of making it a leader in bioscience. The next challenge will be to implement the plan, which includes expanding the medical and dental school classes, and recruiting 100 new faculty members. And the leadership is poised to change, with a search underway for a new medical school dean and vice president for health affairs.

Several of the faculty and staff who asked questions focused on the expected growth of the health center, wondering if the pool of available clinician-scientists would be large enough to hire 90 new ones, whether funding for Bioscience Connecticut will still be around in a few years, and whether the university will be able to find enough community physicians to teach an expanded medical school staff.

Herbst expressed confidence in the health center’s ability to recruit faculty, and said after the meeting that she has “zero concern” about it. “I’ve been around the country, and I know what it takes to recruit faculty,” she said. “I would say that’s my strong suit.”

The ingredients for recruitment, in Herbst’s view, include having an attractive and intellectual environment for faculty, a progressive place that people want to live, and a place with a strong future. And she said Bioscience Connecticut will give the university a competitive advantage. When Malloy announced the plan and the legislature passed it, she got “a huge amount of mail from around the country, other university presidents and provosts just shocked that any government would invest in a health center to that scale at this time.”

Much about the expanded faculty has yet to be determined, including what departments they will be in and whether they will be tenure-track jobs, although Herbst has said that 90 will be clinician-scientists and 10 will be basic scientists. There is no money for new faculty in the current two-year budget, but the health center is expected to ramp up hiring over four years beginning in 2013, said Thomas Callahan, the health center’s interim chief of staff who is leading the implementation of Bioscience Connecticut.

Provost Peter J. Nicholls, who joined Herbst in answering questions, said one recruitment strategy for attracting large numbers of people that worked at the School of Engineering in Storrs was to not hire everyone at once but to build up money that could be used to build labs and attract faculty who would bring younger researchers with them.

Herbst said building facilities is a necessary first step, followed by hiring new faculty and researchers, who could generate federal grants. “The key to this is really the federal research money,” she said. “And you get the kind of faculty to bring that in.”

Part of Herbst’s confidence in the ability to recruit faculty–and one reason she thinks faculty who are not part of the search might not be as confident–comes from the candidates for the vice president and dean job. “That’s a huge signal,” she said. “For that big, hard a job, if we’re getting people like that, then you know hiring faculty clinicians is really going to be quite easy.”

Her criteria for the vice president-dean job? In addition to “the regular stuff you would look for in any leader,” she said, the person hired will have to oversee Bioscience Connecticut, be hands on and high-energy, understand the educational mission, understand research and how to build a research infrastructure, have experience diversifying the student body and faculty of an institution, be able to raise money and work with the legislature.

“These people do exist, by the way,” she said. “Cause I’ve met them. And so it’s not fictional.”

She expects the selection to be named by Christmas.

Bruce Mayer, a professor of genetics and developmental biology who serves as president of the health center faculty union, asked about Herbst’s view on the integration of the Storrs and Farmington campuses, noting that her predecessor, Michael Hogan, was very interested in consolidation. “There’s a perception here that we kind of got the short end of the stick with that,” losing the ability to make local decisions, he said. But, Mayer added, there haven’t been many efficiencies from it.

Herbst said she agreed with Hogan about there being “one UConn.” “When I go to the legislature, talk with the governor or talk with philanthropists or people at the federal government about UConn, it is one UConn,” she said. “That said, I do think we need to be realistic about our physical separation and not try to create some artifice that we’re connected in ways that we’re not.”

More generally, she said collaboration across disciplines happens mostly through faculty. She said she hopes that some connections between the campuses happen naturally as the health center hires more faculty.

“We will try to be professional matchmakers and find those connections,” she said of the administration. “One way, as you know very well, the way you get people to work together is that you dangle money out there.”

But even without money, there are ways to encourage cross-campus collaboration, she said. Northwestern University, where Herbst led the political science department, had a similar geographic gap between the main campus and the medical school. The university used programs such as dinners–with free wine and liquor, she noted to laughter–for faculty to get those on the medical school and on the main campus to know each other. Scientists from each campus presented their work and seating was assigned to mix those from both campuses.

“We did find more and more people discovering each other, even when we didn’t have grant money or seed money to put out there,” she said. “They just didn’t know that other person existed or was moving in a particular research direction.”

Herbst said Nicholls and Vice President for Research Suman Singha will be spending more time at the health center. She will too.

“I love coming over to UCHC because everybody is so disciplined and serious here and looking forward to the future,” she said. “I don’t know how it was before, but right now it’s a very positive place and it’s really an honor to try to serve you and so I’m looking forward to the future together.”