Oct. 26, 1995
Vol. 15, No. 4

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    Steele: Plans and priorities for Pritzker, BSD

    Glenn Steele Jr., one of the nation's foremost surgical oncologists, was appointed Dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine and Vice President for Medical Affairs, effective Sept. 1. He was named the Richard T. Crane Professor earlier this month.

    Before coming to Chicago, Steele was the William V. McDermott Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the department of surgery at New England Deaconess Hospital and a physician in surgical oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Steele also played a crucial role in organizing physicians at New England Deaconess Hospital into the Deaconess Professional Practice Group, of which he was president and chief executive officer. Under his leadership, the DPPG became one of the leading organizations in the Boston-area health-care market.

    One month after Steele's arrival at the University, the Chronicle spoke with him about the factors that attracted him to Chicago and about his intentions for the Biological Sciences Division.

    What convinced you to leave Boston to come to the University of Chicago?

    The most attractive aspect is the ability to build within the institution, and the fact that the intellectual as well as the financial resources to do that are here. The much larger market, the far smaller number of comparable scientific and health-care institutions, the administrative centralization, the unification of basic science and clinical delivery and the University's unique pedigree and its unyielding devotion to the acquisition of new knowledge -- all of that adds up to a window of opportunity for significant growth at Chicago. If we work together, set priorities and take advantage of our established strengths, we are going to achieve eminence in areas in which we are not now eminent. I want to be the catalyst that attempts to move things along.

    Are you concerned that the current tendencies to trim research budgets, cut government health funding and reform health-care delivery are going to slam shut that window of opportunity?

    I suspect that every person in a leadership role in every era has said that their time was a challenging time. I don't mean to sound like Pollyanna. There are indeed challenges, some more daunting than others, but there have always been and there always will be. I think that if we are thoughtful and work together to build from our genuine strengths, we can meet those challenges and achieve greatness. We can no longer, however, hope to be among the best at everything. We have to acknowledge that there are certain areas that deserve a high priority and others that should simply be maintained. Every academic medical center has to provide an enormous range of first-rate services, but those can't all be areas of true eminence. It's the same in the sciences. Our task is to articulate, as precisely as possible, which areas to emphasize and to make those strengths truly extraordinary.

    At the same time, we can't let the challenges overshadow the opportunities. The unprecedented progress of the basic biological sciences in 1995 and this university's unparalleled contiguity between the basic sciences and clinical facilities give us a real advantage in the rapid translation of the science into the clinical arena. Another advantage is the University's strengths in the physical sciences, which have potential value in the biological sciences. The humanities are of extreme value in the training of doctors. And, once they pause from their Nobel celebrations, Chicago's dynasty of economists will undoubtedly continue to contribute to our understanding of health-care policy formulations. I think that our intellectual community provides an array of advantages in these unusual bridge areas.

    What are the outstanding strengths of the Biological Sciences Division?

    The greatest strength is the way the division fits into this remarkable university. There are very few places that have the kind of unity, the pedigree, the history and commitment to creating new knowledge, that I would feel comfortable being a part of. The creation of new knowledge is what interests me personally, and that's what drives most of the people here. It's an obsession that serves as a critical governor of everything we do and how we do it. With all the economic forces that are now in play for clinical care delivery, even some excellent universities have leapt headlong into alliances -- financial arrangements that offer a considerable fiscal reward for clinical services but turn the research enterprise on its head. It can happen naturally, almost without thinking. The primacy of our mission should protect us from that.

    Another thing that is remarkable about this place and is paradoxically a real strength is the fact that this is a such a small community. The social dynamics here are those of a very small town. Even though this a great university, everything is physically contiguous. So there's unusual potential for crossing cultural and educational borders, unlike in many bigger places where there is a huge intellectual community but people don't routinely interact. When he helped to create the Biological Sciences Learning Center, my predecessor, Sam Hellman [the A.N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor in Radiation & Cellular Oncology], enhanced those dynamics. Bringing together undergraduates, medical students and basic researchers, that building is literally a concrete example of one of the things that makes this university special. Maintaining the sense of community, and enhancing the potential to translate it into creative ideas, is now, in part, my responsibility.

    As a newcomer, I think it's also my obligation to remind the sometimes jaded veterans that this place is, without a doubt, superb. The proof of the pudding was the recent National Research Council review of graduate research and teaching. The University was ranked in the top 10 in 18 of the 30 programs that were reviewed. And we did well in the biological sciences: number one for faculty quality in ecology, evolution and behavior, which also was second in the nation for teaching effectiveness, and in the top 10 for teaching effectiveness in molecular and general genetics and in physiology. And we had three more rankings in the top 15.

    Not bad, but there is always room for improvement. Who would want my job at a place that was number one in everything? That would be a no-win situation. I think we're likely to move up in areas such as Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and in Neurobiology, where we are recruiting some spectacular people. We're coordinating our search for Neurology and Psychiatry chairs and intend to increase the contacts between these areas, to reconfigure them as a behavioral sciences and neurosciences aggregate. We've already completed our search for a Chairman of Pediatrics. Herbert Abelson will be here as of December -- a big win for us. He was the number one candidate of the search committee. Strong pediatrics leadership will, in turn, make it much easier to move forward in genetics.

    What are the key areas for improvement?

    It's still too early for me to offer a complete answer to that question. I'm still investigating, trying to get my arms around my areas. I refer to it as my personal head-start program, where I look intensely for a week at a time at each of the constituencies and ask questions about what they do. We're starting with the College, then the medical school and basic sciences, then the clinical faculty and then the Hospitals and hospital network. What will come out of that is a series of goals for each constituency, as well as recommendations for some sort of BSD-wide priority-setting process.

    Some things have already become clear. One priority will be a systematic upgrading of our commitment to the quality of teaching of the undergraduates, under the leadership of Jose Quintans. Another priority is to enhance the perception of Pritzker as a world-class medical school. It's not yet perceived as within the top five schools in the country, which is how I want it to be perceived when I finish my tenure here.

    The graduate programs are extraordinarily good, but they can be better. There's not quite the sense of community among beginning biological sciences graduate students at the University that exists at some other top-flight programs. We need to make the early parts of the graduate experience more cohesive, a process that is already under way.

    Some other areas will become our top priorities because they are already exceptional and provide us with wonderful growth opportunities. We want to expand our efforts in structural biology, for example, because we are already strong and because it is a discipline that cuts across so many of the different constituencies that I mentioned earlier. It's a core resource for much of biology, ranging from basic sciences to drug development.

    Another priority is the neurosciences, a rapidly evolving field that encompasses everything from basic neurobiology to behavior. A quick glance at the demography of behavioral and neurologic diseases and the changing population structure in this country is all it takes to realize that some of the major problems that we will increasingly face in medicine are not those that lead to death but to mental and physical dysfunction. Another crucial area is obviously genetics, from the most basic molecular biology to the frontiers of gene therapy.

    Is there anything else you would like to add?

    Yes, wish me luck. This is a fantastic and overwhelming job. The upside is that the dean is responsible for the academic credibility of a big piece of this university and has the resources to continue and even expand on a long tradition of excellence. The downside is that the job is so big. That's a little scary, but at least so far, it has been extremely energizing.

    -- John Easton