The Big Picture

A message from Dr. Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, UTHealth President and Alkek-Williams Distinguished Chair

The Big Picture, September 30, 2011

Posted: September 30, 2011


To our friends, faculty, staff and students—especially our new students just joining the UTHealth family—welcome to a new academic year!

We recently kicked off the year with our annual Salutation celebration welcoming all UTHealth students. It was a wonderful occasion for the deans and students from across our campuses to come together—reminding us all of the unique strengths and unparalleled collaborative potential of this institution. As the deans and I visited with students, we discussed their goals and passion for learning and success in biomedical sciences. I am truly honored to be a part of these students’ academic careers and to witness the contributions they will make in their chosen fields.

Though few classes were in session, our summer was busy and very productive. In August, I presented an overview of our research programs to the UT System Board of Regents, giving me the opportunity to reflect on our institution’s 40-year history and share many of the landmark discoveries made by our faculty and students.

During the presentation, I also shared the tremendous growth our schools have experienced over the past 10 years. Collectively, the faculty has grown by nearly 500, our research expenditures have steadily increased by 9 percent per year, our physical plant has expanded by nearly 2.5 million square feet and enrollment has grown by nearly 40 percent. Our institution has simply never been stronger or better positioned to provide such spectacular educational opportunities and real solutions to the most pressing health-related challenges of our time.

The highlight of the Board of Regents meeting was Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s address, during which he presented his Framework for Advancing Excellence throughout the UT System. Chancellor Cigarroa outlined nine steps of his action plan, which involve all of the UT institutions. We look forward to engaging with these institutions and with the UT System as we all work to achieve the chancellor’s goals.

UTHealth has already begun implementing Chancellor Cigarroa’s strategies in several areas, including:

As executive vice president for academic and research affairs, Dean George Stancel is helping us to realize the chancellor’s goal of rewarding and retaining top faculty. As we prepare the succession plan for the leadership of our great graduate school, we have begun interviewing an exceptional group of finalists for the dean’s job and will select the very best candidate to lead our nationally recognized school. I was grateful for the opportunity to welcome Dr. Ron DePinho, president of MD Anderson Cancer Center, as we met with the GSBS faculty at a town hall meeting this week. We spoke of collaboration and our joint commitment to strengthening the educational program so that it may continue to grow and attract the best students.

I have had productive meetings with Dean Jack Smith, Dr. Jiajie Zhang and Cheryl Chinen to discuss the long-term plans of the School of Biomedical Informatics. I also plan to meet with the students. I believe this unique school has unexplored prospects for research and integration with our other schools and hospital partners. SBMI is known for exploring models of reasoning in medicine, critical appraisal of solutions and innovative approaches to patient safety. There are tremendous opportunities to build upon this expertise through creative collaborations, and we are committed to prioritizing faculty recruitment and stability.

Dean John Valenza has a comprehensive strategic direction for the 106-year-old School of Dentistry—to be the world leader in dental education. In Dean Valenza’s words, the strength of the School of Dentistry lies with its longstanding traditions of clinical excellence, innovation in education and research and a team-oriented culture. He is committed to the community, wants to create a culture of assessment, expand research opportunities and modernize the curricula. His other current priorities include several key recruitments, among them the Associate Dean for Research, the Chair of Diagnostic Sciences and the Chair of Pediatric Dentistry.

The Medical School continues on its path of growth and quality, with expanding class sizes and the recruitment of nationally known clinicians and physician-scientists. Our clinical practice plan also is growing at an incredible rate—in fact the latest AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) report shows that it is one of the fastest growing academic clinical programs in the nation. Working with our clinical partners at Memorial Hermann, the Harris County Hospital District and the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center, we continue to focus on quality of care and patient safety, with the appointment of vice chairs for quality within each clinical department. Our promise is patient care second to none.

As vice president for innovation, Dean Roberta Ness is formulating initiatives at each of the six schools, including programs to teach students how to think creatively. Our long-term plans include recruiting faculty with highly innovative ideas and providing funding for high-risk ideas. The School of Public Health has led remarkable success in these areas, markedly growing enrollment throughout their campuses across the state—they are now the third largest school of public health in the United States—and increasing research funding across the board.

In her role as senior vice president for community affairs, Dean Pat Starck is focusing on the chancellor’s goal of enhancing philanthropic success. As she wrote in the July 15 issue of The Starck Truth, this position will have an impact on the entire community. In her own words, this new role is not a career choice for her—it is about supporting the mission of UTHealth. We want to see this university continue to grow and realize its full potential—and we are determined to assemble a very strong team in the Office of Advancement. Likewise, we will focus on the recruitment of faculty and staff to meet our nursing students’ needs as the School of Nursing has seen a massive uptick in enrollment to meet clinical demands.

I look forward to seeing these programs and initiatives unfold, and I will keep our community updated on the progress made toward realizing Chancellor Cigarroa’s vision.

As fiscal year 2011 draws to a close, I would like to say a special thank you to Laura Smith, who retired Sept. 1 after 28 years dedicated to our institution. She was instrumental in helping us secure indirect cost recovery dollars and spent tireless hours committed to legislative issues, including formula funding. Thank you, Laura, for all you have done for the university.

I am also happy to report that we have ended FY11 on a positive budget, thanks to a strong showing from the group practice, the performance of our research scientists obtaining competitive extramural funding and the careful—often difficult—spending reductions that you all have made. This has been a very tough year financially, and I thank you for your perseverance and steadfast dedication to our missions. Your hard work and innovative approaches to management are greatly appreciated, and the results of your efforts are evident in the strength and far-reaching impact of this institution.

After all, it is your dedication, innovation, and passion that drive our pursuit of excellence. And as we embark on Chancellor Cigarroa’s new initiative, I am reminded that excellence is truly the foundation of this university. It is what attracted all of us—students, faculty and staff alike—to UTHealth, and is fundamental to the work that we do every day. I hope that each of you is proud of your efforts, your results and your institution. The collective talents and wide-ranging expertise of the UTHealth team are unmatched, and, together, there is literally no health care challenge that we cannot address.

As I attended the Association of Academic Health Centers meeting last week, I was reassured to hear a familiar refrain—everyone in the country is facing the same challenges—namely, finding new resources to protect and grow our academic enterprise. However, as financially fragile as we may feel, we as academic health centers have a great advantage—an asset that is truly unmatched. We have intellectual curiosity. Agility of the mind. The inspiration that comes from our innovative faculty, staff, students, residents, fellows and post-docs is our competitive advantage.

Let us never forget this.

Giuseppe Colasurdo