The Termination of UCSF Dean David Kessler

By  |  December 14, 2007 | 

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.


  1. sfthought December 15, 2007 at 6:00 am - Reply

    Thank you for this timely post.

  2. bsp December 15, 2007 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I especially appreciate the recognition of what this means for the dean’s family and for his staff. Many of the folks who have been working with Dr. Kessler closely over the past years have come to greatly respect his integrity. This has been a tremendous shock for the whole school, and especially for the students, whose dean has suddenly been taken from them without adequate explanation. It’s hard at this stage to estimate what the ultimate impact will be on the school and on UCSF, but for the moment, this is a very difficult situation.

  3. Business As Usual December 15, 2007 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    I also appreciate this insightful blog, and agree that ” the loss of any individual or the occurrence of a major organizational trauma are rarely fatal.” My father always told me “no one monkey runs the show” and that “everyone can be replaced….change is inevitable and always has the potential for a much-improved experience” – this is especially true since Dean Kessler was not liked by most of the people who he delt with regularly (including most of the Department Chairs at UCSF).

  4. James E. Thornton June 26, 2009 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    Sounds to me that UCSF may have made a big mistake. In any event I would like very much to contact Dr. Kessler and any help you can provide me as to how I might reach him will be appreciated. I wish to discuss with him new technology that is now available that can substantially help improve human nutrition to help reduce our consumption of too much fat, sugar and salt, particularily “FAT”. The technology of which I speak involves altering the Essential Amino Acid compostion of plant foods (any kind) tailored to meet the specfic requirements of individual animal groups (including humans). These new plant proteins would be 100 % bioavailable to the human or nonhuman animal groups consuming them.

  5. James E. Thornton June 26, 2009 at 9:20 pm - Reply

    In my earlier post I forgot to include my contact info: Jim Thornton, Email; [email protected]. JT

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About the Author: Bob Wachter

Robert M. Wachter, MD is Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where he holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine. He is also Chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine. He has published 250 articles and 6 books in the fields of quality, safety, and health policy. He coined the term hospitalist” in a 1996 New England Journal of Medicine article and is past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine. He is generally considered the academic leader of the hospitalist movement, the fastest growing specialty in the history of modern medicine. He is also a national leader in the fields of patient safety and healthcare quality. He is editor of AHRQ WebM&M, a case-based patient safety journal on the Web, and AHRQ Patient Safety Network, the leading federal patient safety portal. Together, the sites receive nearly one million unique visits each year. He received one of the 2004 John M. Eisenberg Awards, the nation’s top honor in patient safety and quality. He has been selected as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years, the only academic physician to achieve this distinction; in 2015 he was #1 on the list. He is a former chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and has served on the healthcare advisory boards of several companies, including Google. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, was a New York Times science bestseller.


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