This lovely beach scene hangs directly across from my desk and is in my line of sight during most of my working day. Unlike the inexpensive reproduction of “Supine Woman” which I wrote about in last month’s blog, this is an original oil painting and part of UC Davis Medical Center’s permanent art collection. Titled “Sunset Beach on Monterey Bay” by local artist Laurie Winthers, I find this scene to be a soothing and relaxing presence during hectic workdays – perhaps the next best thing to actually taking a walk at the beach which certainly isn’t possible here in Sacramento.
Besides serving as a source of peace and calm, this beach scene also reminds me of life, change, and the environment in which we choose to experience them, viewpoints once shared with me by my good friend Gene Crumley, former department chair for Business and Leadership at UC Davis Extension and now a consultant to our health system. As Gene had pointed out, we could choose to live in the hot dry sand of the beach, but that is an arid, barren and unchanging place where little can live and grow — clearly not the best choice. The whitecaps of the surf looks fun, but it is too tumultuous and unstable there to last very long – unless you are an expert surfer, you could be pulled underwater to drown or dragged to death on the rocks. Instead, the optimal spot for life to thrive is where the waves gently roll up and back to meet the sand – this is where there is just enough change to bring renewing nutrients from the ocean to the land, thus supporting a diversity of life in both land and water. I think this is a wonderful metaphor for the environment of an academic department and an academic health center – we need to expect change, and we need to try to ensure it’s the right level of change so that we too can regularly experience an influx of new talent and resources to be we renewed, grow and thrive.
Change is on my mind – and maybe yours too – because our Vice Chancellor/Dean of UC Davis Health, Julie Freischlag, just announced that she has accepted a new position as CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and will be leaving us in May after only three years in her position here. A search for her replacement is a high priority of the new UC Davis Chancellor Gary May. Chancellor May is joining our campus in a few months; previously he was dean of the School of Engineering at Georgia Tech. As we know, high-level searches can take many months, so an interim vice chancellor/dean will be appointed before the end of April to lead UC Davis Health when VC/Dean Freischlag leaves.
Change in leadership at the top of our organization brings new opportunities and is exciting in many ways, but change also brings uncertainty which can be a source of concern and worry, too. The interim vice chancellor/dean cannot be a candidate for the permanent position – this stipulation was included in the call for nominations for the interim position — so there will not be a contender “auditioning” for the position. The intent is to ensure that no one is perceived as an heir-apparent so that we attract the most talented individuals for the position. I am also hopeful that this means no “politicking” by an incumbent, and that the interim will truly do the job that needs to be done, including making tough decisions that will keep us moving forward.
Interim leadership seems to be more common in academia than in the business world where successors are often identified and groomed internally through a well-defined succession process. In the business world, I’ve heard it said that organizations led by interim leaders are often not as successful as those with planned succession. I don’t know if this applies to academic health centers, too, since planned succession isn’t the norm in medical schools – but we certainly don’t want a drop in performance to happen to us. The UC Davis School of Medicine has just hit its highest ranking for NIH funding, according to the Blue Ridge Medical Institute – 28th in the nation – reflecting an incredible trajectory of growth over the past 15+ years. And we have received many other wonderful honors in recent years, outlined on the UC Davis Health Awards and Honors webpage1 – this is a source of pride for us all, and we need to keep this going.
So what can we do as a department to keep up the momentum? I’m sure that whoever comes in as our next vice chancellor/dean next will highly value a department that is strong, forward-thinking, accomplished, and self-directed. Though VC/Dean Freischlag’s strategic plan has only recently been launched, the major goals — leading person-centered care, accelerating innovative research, re-imagining education, improving population health, transforming culture and promoting sustainability — are all foundational concepts that clearly define our most basic missions and aspirations, regardless of who serves as our vice chancellor/dean. Our own department strategic plan aligns with these goals and demonstrates our commitment to positive change; it is therefore important that we keep moving toward these goals. Though our leaders may be in transition, there are some things that never change – there will always be patients requiring our clinical services as well as the services of the doctors, nurses, clinical lab scientists, and other professionals that we educate. There is an on-going need for innovation and the discovery of new knowledge to improve what we do, and we need to have a culture that encourages sustainability, diversity, inclusion, and collaboration to achieve these important goals, aspirations, and dreams.
We can’t control much of the change around us, just like we can’t control the waves on the beach – but we can control how we react and what we do. The world continues to move forward, and so we too are moving forward with the recruitment of incredibly talented new faculty and staff to support our goals,. I’m delighted that there is such strong enthusiasm among our candidates for joining our team, as well as strong support for our recruits from other UC Davis Health leaders. I am personally working with other departments and our own faculty to enhance our informatics programs, to create a multi-disciplinary informatics fellowship, and to grow more informatics faculty since pathology is increasingly seen as a major hub for information management. Our research retreat this year is focusing on how we can improve research infrastructure to better support the creative part of our mission. And these are just a few examples – we are moving forward optimistically and deliberately in every area of our strategic plan so that we don’t fall behind. Though leaders may change, the University of California, Davis and UC Davis Health remains an amazing place with exceptional people who have great ideas, talent and commitment to make the world a better place. I hope that you’ll join me in ensuring that we demonstrate the value of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine during this time of transition, so that we get the recognition that we deserve as key players whose success “tees up” others, including our new leaders, to make us all even greater and more successful.