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University Health System welcomes Schlissel as new head

File Photo/Daily
Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs Ora Pescovitz in her office. Buy this photo

By Ian Dillingham, Daily News Editor
Published January 24, 2014

In addition to the responsibilities of running the University’s 19 schools and colleges, University President-Elect Mark Schlissel will be responsible for managing the University of Michigan Health System, which accounts for about 44 percent of the University’s expenses, according the to University’s 2013 financial report.

Schlissel, however, will bring a unique perspective to the health system given his background in research and clinical medicine.

“I'm thrilled that they selected another biochemist,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said at the announcement on Friday morning.

Ora Pescovitz, executive vice president for medical affairs, wrote in a UMHS blog that the health system was excited to welcome Schlissel into his new role and thankful for the dedication and service Coleman provided the system under her tenure.

“This is wonderful news for the University and for our Health System,” Pescovitz wrote. “Dr. Schlissel is a remarkable physician-scientist who will bring to the presidency an important depth of understanding about academic medicine and biomedical science. We are extremely fortunate that he will be at the helm as we begin an exciting new era at Michigan.”

Similar to his predecessor, Schlissel spent the early part of his career conducting laboratory research. He graduated from Princeton University in 1979 with a degree in biological sciences and obtained both an M.D. and Ph.D in physiological chemistry from The Johns Hopkins University in 1986.

“(I have) a strong and personal belief in the ability of education to transform lives and the understanding that academic excellence and diversity are inextricably linked,” Schlissel said.

Women's Studies Prof. Timothy R.B. Johnson, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical School, served on the presidential advisory search committee and said the committee looked for a candidate with a strong record of undergraduate and graduate education, but who also had experience in health system management.

Although the committee desired a candidate with medical experience, the president’s responsibilities extend well beyond medical care, making it difficult to find someone who strikes the right balance.

“The health system was an important consideration for the search committee,” Johnson said. “I think (Schlissel) had a lot of very good experience with the challenges faced with health centers.”

In recent years, Coleman has taken an active role in the management of the UMHS, serving as chair of the Hospitals and Health Centers Executive Board. Johnson said he anticipates Schlissel will adopt a similar leadership style.

The president-elect has had experience with three different healthcare institutions, which factored into the selection process, Johnson said.

Johns Hopkins Health System, where Schlissel served as a faculty member, employs a similar style of vertical integration to the University, demonstrating to the search committee that he was capable of performing as head of UMHS.

The University of California, Berkeley does not have an affiliated health system, but Johnson said Schlissel demonstrated a dedication to undergraduate education during his tenure at the institution. Schlissel continued collaborating with graduate students at the Berkeley even after he left, flying from the East Coast to California once a month to make sure his students graduated on time. His last student is set to graduate in May.

“We wanted someone who could do everything at the University and we wanted someone who had experience with undergraduate education — what teaching undergraduates was like,” Johnson said.

At his current position as Brown University’s Provost, Schlissel was given responsibility of medical education. However, Brown doesn’t manage its own hospital, so Schlissel was instead responsible for a wide array of private facilities affiliated with the university.

Upon starting his tenure as president, Schlissel will face some of the same challenges he encountered at other centers and some unique to the University.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the financial uncertainty created by the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. While the law was enacted in 2010, implementation of the most influential regulations — primarily the government-mandated purchase of health insurance — didn’t begin until late 2013. Health systems around the nation are therefore still adjusting to changes in coverage, Johnson said.

“Nobody likes uncertainty — the markets don’t like uncertainty, health systems don’t like uncertainty,” Johnson said. “We’re probably facing more uncertainty now, over the next two or three years, than we’ve seen in a long time.”

In recent years, UMHS has undergone rapid expansion through cooperation with neighboring health systems — namely gaining a minority share of MidMichigan Health in 2012 and beginning negotiations for a partnership with Allegiance Health in 2013. Schlissel will also have to manage the expansion of health system facilities, which are currently operating at capacity.

“It’s a very challenging time for academic medical centers and Michigan has one of the premier centers,” Johnson said. “We certainly hope that Dr. Schlissel can lead us to a really good place and allow us to do the kind of experiments with the care we provide that will demonstrate what it means to be a successful academic medical center moving forward.”

In his first months, Johnson said the most important tasks for Schlissel will be getting to know the health system administration and learning about the culture of the health system.

“He’s a physician, so he’s able to take the pulse of people — take the pulse of things — and make a diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan,” Johnson said. “In a lot of ways, that kind of medical logic can be used to make the medical center more healthy.”

In his first address, Schlissel discussed the academic environment present throughout the University, including within the medical campus. Although his career has revolved around scientific, laboratory-based research, he stressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration across the University.

“Michigan can capture unique synergies between the arts, the humanities, engineering, science, law, business, medicine, public health, public policy, design — the list goes on and on and our capacity seems endless,” Schlissel said.

University Regent Laurence B. Deitch (D) said the presidential search process was the “hardest and most fulfilling” project of his career, but said Schlissel’s credentials made him an ideal candidate to lead the University’s 3,000 faculty members.

“The regents always believed that we wanted a distinguished scholar to lead the University,” Deitch said. “In order to have the moral authority necessary to lead our faculty to even greater heights everyday, a president must command respect for his or her academic achievements, besides having the skill of a CEO and master salesperson together with the capacity for very hard work.”

The regents appreciated Schlissel’s administrative experience at other large research universities, namely Johns Hopkins and Berkeley, where he was dean of biological sciences, Deitch said.

Schlissel said he hopes to interact with students to improve education. In particular, he said he wants to engage with graduate students, who can sometimes go unnoticed. He noted the life-changing relationship with his undergraduate mentor.

“Although I see Michigan as one of this nation's strongest research institutions, what lies at its core is the education of talented and diverse students from around the state, the nation and the world,” Schlissel said.

The University has 8,200 graduate students currently enrolled through Rackham Graduate School — spanning 108 Ph.D., 87 master's and 34 certificate programs.

Regent Katherine E. White (D) said Schlissel’s passion for education and research, as well as his experience with lab work, will allow him to interact more effectively with the student body.

“We have heard through our graduate students that they have experiences that are often very different from what we address for our undergraduates,” White said. “Dr. Schlissel is very well-suited to understand the issues that face graduate students."

Rackham student Allie, a representative of the University’s Graduate Employees' Organization, who wished to be identified by first name only, said she appreciates Schlissel’s effort to reach out to graduate students, who have unique concerns compared to the rest of the student body.

“The majority of grad students at this university are employees of the University as graduate student instructors,” she said. “We live between being students ourselves, of our professors and also being teachers of undergraduates. That’s a very particular place to inhabit and it’s a delicate balance.”

Schlissel said he is dedicated to making the campus more diverse, which he views as a crucial component of any successful research institution. He plans to involve students in decisions regarding education and acknowledged their direct impact on research at the University.

“Students get to learn from faculty who are actively defining the leading edge of human knowledge and curiosity and the imaginative energies of student contribute, in turn, to the research enterprise,” he said.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated that UMHS had acquired MidMichigan and Allegiance Health. UMHS only gained a minority share of MidMichigan and partnership negotiations are still ongoing with Allegiance Health.


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