University officials envision changes for biosciences

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 - 8:07pm

A few days after the University’s Board of Regents approved a reorganization of the University of Michigan Health System and the University’s Medical School’s top leadership structure, the President’s Advisory Panel on the Biosciences released a final report detailing recommendations for change.

Though the developments mark a new push to evaluate the University’s approach to medicine, health and the biosciences — which cover scientific disciplines that focus on the study of life and living organisms — several faculty members interviewed by The Michigan Daily are unsure exactly what these changes will mean in the near future.

The first major change occurred last month, when University President Mark Schlissel recommended that Marschall Runge, the University’s executive vice president for medical affairs and the chief executive officer of UMHS, also serve as dean of the University’s Medical School. Runge will assume the deanship in January, in addition to his current roles.

University President Mark Schlissel convened the President’s Advisory Panel on the Biosciences last fall to determine how best to capitalize on the University’s existing resources in the sciences. Chaired by University Provost Martha Pollack, the panel consisted of 17 faculty members from a variety of departments, including chemistry, biology, psychology, biomedical engineering and mathematics.

The panel made four recommendations: foster leadership and hire deans and department chairs who lead by example, use measures of success that support innovative ideas, foster further collaboration between faculty members and increase faculty productiveness and the efficacy of the institution.

Mary O’Riordan, associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, said Runge’s way forward will likely be guided by the panel’s suggestions.

“This is likely to have significant impact on how Dr. Runge will shape the sciences and therefore our educational mission as well,” O’Riordan wrote in an e-mail to the Daily. “We are still waiting to see how this will impact graduate education.”

The panel identified several strengths of the University’s current efforts in the biosciences included the size of the overall biosciences enterprise at the University, the breadth of disciplines outside of the biosciences, the scores top-notch scientists pursuing bioscience research at the University, the spirit of faculty collaboration, the highly ranked science facilities and the existence of a University-owned hospital.

The weaknesses listed in the panel’s report include leadership that does not incentivize risk-taking, a lack of a common mission — especially between the Medical School and other entities — and insufficient support for graduate programs in research.

“While there are many examples of productive collaborations across disciplines at UM, our highly decentralized structure and traditionally defined departments limit our ability to take full advantage of our large investment in faculty and infrastructure in this vital domain of scholarship,” a statement released by the panel read.

When he originally appointed Marshall Runge as EVPMA in November 2014, Schlissel said he made the recommendation based on his accomplishments as a scientist, doctor and leader. In September, Schlissel said appointing Runge to the deanship is logical because of the emphasis he places on innovation and progress.

This shift in leadership comes at a time when UMHS is looking to create a more collaborative environment to make way for greater achievements in the biosciences.

Neuroscience Prof. Huda Akil, a panel member, said she believes the panel was a good first step in planning how to build on the advantages that the University already has.

“Nobody can do this in a vacuum,” she said. “You could never duplicate all the strengths and weaknesses that already exist. You can just build around them and hope at the same time you can find new direction.”

Panel member Tom Schmidt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said though the panel made recommendations about how to improve biosciences at the University, no decisions were made on the ultimate methods.

“That’ll be the next phase — how do we address some of these barriers that the panel identified?” Schmidt said.

One way the University is addressing those challenges, Schmidt said, is by fostering a closer relationship between UMHS and the Medical School, as illustrated by Runge’s dual position.

“We have tremendous strength in the biological sciences, and so how do we better coordinate that and take advantage of it?” Schmidt said. “Having the dean and the vice president for medical affairs be the same person, I think, will help with that.”

Sally Camper, chair of the Department of Human Genetics, wrote in an e-mail interview that some faculty members worry UMHS may be inefficient while Runge adjusts to his additional role. For example, Camper’s term as chair is nearing an end, and she’s worried the search for a replacement could be stalled.

“I think there is a fear that it will slow things down,” Camper wrote. “But his office has already contacted me about forming a search committee for my replacement, and he aims to fill it quickly.”

Medical School student Brendan Heiden applauded the move to combine the positions. He said he thinks the changes would be positive, though perhaps slow to occur. He added that it would be beneficial for UMHS and Medical School to work together in the changing healthcare landscape.

“I think medicine is changing rapidly right now,” Heiden said. “From a research funding perspective, from a health insurance perspective, the rising costs of patient care, all of that is changing tremendously. Being able to tie those two components of the health system together would be very beneficial for all those areas.”

However, Heiden said he recognized the transition might be difficult.

“I think that the one challenge here is that these are two very big positions for one person to have, so I think that the only tentativeness that one could take from this is how much one individual will have to oversee,” he said.

Akil noted that with all of this change, it will still be a waiting game to see how the implications of the panel come to light. She said the panel left room for interpretation, and it is up to Schlissel and the administration to make decisions based on the recommendations.

“The panel’s goal was to envision possibility,” Akil said. “To put that in front of the president, administration and the regents and to see which path they need to choose. We did not try to impose one single approach as the only way to do it.”

LSA senior Alexandra Laps said she believes pre-medical undergraduate students are already attracted to both the University’s hospital and Medical School, so this restructuring can only further the University’s high standing with matriculating students.

“In terms of converging the hospital and Medical School more together, I think that people will be able to get a lot more clinical experience early on in Med School,” she said. “This is something that, especially me, in going through the process am definitely attracted to and would consider when I’m looking at a Med School. I also think that it will probably open up more opportunities for undergrads to get involved in clinical experience while they’re at Michigan in order to better prepare them for Med School.”

Though the panel will not meet again, Akil and Schmidt said they believe its goals were achieved. Akil said surveying the strengths and weaknesses of the University was their mission, and she believes they did just that.

Schmidt said the various departments represented in the panel all contributed to the final recommendations.

“We wanted a diversity of opinion and we wanted to have the strengths across campus recognized,” he said. “There were people there who were able to speak about the museums, the biological station, chemistry — how advances in chemistry are affecting the biological sciences. We wanted that diversity of expertise to weigh in on this because I think that’s Michigan’s strength and how we’ll achieve this goal is by building bridges that connect some of these people and areas of expertise.”

Kristen Verhey, associate professor of cellular and developmental biology, said UMHS needs change, particularly in its culture.

“What is clear is that the overall culture here needs to change,” Verhey said. “And I think just recognizing that and putting it in paper is the first step, and therefore I believe that it is going to be a good thing.”

Scott Barolo, director of the University’s Program in Biomedical Sciences, said as of now, he does not know of any obvious changes that will occur to graduate education. He added that he is optimistic about the panel’s report, as it seems likely the University will increase support for the sciences.

Verhey added that basic support for research and faculty was lacking under past leadership, and she hopes the restructuring will create a more encouraging environment.