Well, today the great Mecca of medical care and innovation that is UCSF all but ground to a halt. Our Dean was just let go under very odd circumstances, and everyone’s flocking to water coolers and Starbucks around the city to find out who knows what.
I won’t be giving away any trade secrets here, since I have none. Lucky for me, I operate at an altitude in the University just below that of the muckety-mucks, which allows me to do my work distracted by a manageable volume of palace intrigue. On most days, that’s a good thing. But on days like this, I’m as hungry for the inside dish as anyone else.
Here’s the story: two hours ago, our Chancellor, Nobel Prize winner Michael Bishop, sent an email to the University community that read, in part:
I write to inform you that Professor David Kessler has left office as Dean of the UCSF School of Medicine and Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs. I thank him for his energetic service to the university and his substantial achievements on behalf of UCSF.
It went on to name his interim replacement, Dr. Sam Hawgood, Chair of Pediatrics, a superb choice.
Precisely 31 minutes later came the following email from (former) Dean Kessler:
Shortly after arriving at UCSF as Dean, I discovered a series of financial irregularities that predated my appointment. I reported these issues to appropriate university officials at the time, and have endeavored to work with the university ever since to solve these problems. The university characterized me as a whistleblower. During the summer, Chancellor Bishop requested my resignation. I continued to try to solve these problems. Yesterday, Chancellor Bishop terminated my appointment as Dean, effective immediately…
I share this with you since I am 110% confident that this cryptic and intriguing message is already binging its way to every academic leader and healthcare reporter in the United States. Kessler is not only a major figure in academia, as Dean of one of the nation’s elite medical schools, but was a high profile figure as FDA commish under Bush I and Clinton. He was immensely successful in that role, but had a stormy tenure as Dean at Yale and, dare I say, an unusual run at UCSF.
There have been concerns about financial “irregularities” that began brewing soon after the Dean arrived from New Haven. But a report released in July appeared to clear Kessler of the charges made by a “whistleblower” – all the more interesting given his statement regarding whistle blowing in his termination email.
Whatever the true story, this has to be exquisitely painful to David, his family, and his staff, and I am truly sorry for that. His work as FDA commissioner, particularly on tobacco (nicely described in his book), was groundbreaking and courageous, and – though he was not a popular figure at UCSF – his tenure was marked by the successful recruiting of a number of stellar department chairs and other leaders, pretty impressive fundraising, excellent progress on our spectacular new campus at Mission Bay, and the receipt of one of the largest federal grants for translational science. A pretty good legacy.
So today, nobody is doing much of anything at UCSF but gossiping and processing. But tomorrow we’ll be back to work (yes, I know it’s Saturday). One of the amazing things about great institutions is that – though one person can make a significant difference – the loss of any individual or the occurrence of a major organizational trauma are rarely fatal. The quality of the people and the institutional culture are just too sticky to be so easily upended.