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Meet the Dean: A Q&A with Dr. Michael Abecassis

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Michael Abecassis, MD, MBA, was appointed dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson (COM–T) effective Monday, Nov. 4. The COM–T communications team recently sat down and chatted with Dr. Abecassis about his life and vision for the College. Prior to joining UArizona, Dr. Abecassis served at Northwestern Medicine as chief of the Division of Organ Transplantation and founding director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center. 

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Toronto, Canada.

Q: Is your family here in Tucson with you?
A: My wife Debbie and I are empty-nesters having raised five kids; we now have three Yorkies. So the answer to your question is that Debbie, myself and the three Yorkies are now here in Tucson.

Q: What’s your research focus?
A: I have had several research interests over the years, mostly revolving around transplantation. Presently, I am focused on molecular biomarker discovery and functional genomics, as well as on the molecular triggers of reactivation of a latent Herpes virus called Cytomegalovirus (CMV) that affects immunocompromised hosts, including transplant patients.

Q: Are you bringing any of that research here?
A: Yes, both directly and indirectly. I am involved in translating our previous biomarker work into a series of tests that will be used routinely by patients in the clinic, completing the spectrum of bench-to-bedside, and will be working in conjunction with the biorepository we had created at Northwestern to make that happen. I am also following up on work from a current grant at Northwestern, considering ways to take the next step together with outstanding folks here at UArizona.

Q: Would you say transplant surgery is your passion? 
A: I would definitely say that transplantation is one of my passions. Of course, as a surgeon, the surgical piece is the fun part … But there is also a tremendous amount of innovation around moving the field of transplantation forward that involves a lot of different clinical and academic disciplines and, in a way, those have all become an integral part of my passion that spill onto the broader spaces of research, as well as education and training. Finally, at this stage of my career, the passion has evolved beyond transplantation into healthcare in general, and the advancement of academic medicine in particular, especially as the landscape changes rapidly. I guess navigating through those changes has become my new passion.

Q: How do your past experiences help you as our new dean? 
A: I have worn a lot of different hats over the past three decades all related to the advancement of clinical and academic medicine. I have also been involved administratively in local and national activities, through professional societies and industry, helping to shape and navigate through the many changes that have affected various aspects of healthcare delivery and its complex academic provider components.

I believe that my current charge represents a logical extension of, and the opportunity to apply a lot of what I have learned through these past experiences. I also think that my general approach to taking on challenging situations will be very helpful as we address some of the significant challenges facing us, as long as we are able to foster a sense of shared purpose, of shared destiny and a pride of enterprise. No matter what someone’s role might be, or the challenges we face, we must remember that we are all on the same team.  This approach has worked well in my past experiences and will serve us all well in facing the present and future. 

Q: What drew you to the College of Medicine – Tucson?
A: I view challenges as opportunities; the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity. This is what drew me to transplantation from the onset. I entered the field of transplantation at a time where success was a real question mark. Now, through advancements in the science and field of transplantation, these procedures have become routine for the most part.

I am the eternal optimist, always seeing the glass half full. What drew me to COM-T was that I saw a great institution that was going through some bumps, but with an outstanding leadership team in place, and with equally outstanding people here. I thought and continue to think that the opportunity to excel in all domains that pertain to the UA Health Sciences in general and to COM-T in particular is huge. So, in short, it was the attraction that was the opportunity itself, and the prospect of a great vision of a future state.

Q: What’s your vision for our college?
A: I need to take the time to listen and learn, and to scan the environment in order to better understand the facts on the ground and the existing ecosystem. There has been some instability and a lot of changes have taken, and are taking place, placing some stress on the system and some dissatisfaction. My immediate predecessor, Dr. Irving Kron, has done a great job as interim Dean in addressing a number of issues and in providing some much needed stability. And I am extremely grateful for that. But there is a lot to be done in order to maintain a positive energy and hope.

It is clear that deans today need to not just understand the academic realities, but also to put these in the context of the changing health care landscape, including the logistics and finances behind healthcare delivery. Therefore, we need to develop a better understanding and a better relationship with our clinical partner, Banner Health, in order to better leverage our individual assets so that 1+1=3 instead of 1.5. 

I believe that if we do this right, we could easily become a model for other places, a large number of which are struggling with the same issues. Once I have a better understanding of the issues on the ground, the current state, I will work together with our academic and clinical leaders to define our destination towards a future state.

Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of our college?
A: I don’t tend to think in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but instead in terms of challenges, gaps and opportunities. Every challenge and every gap present a unique set of opportunities. I believe that we are blessed with a number of strong assets, both within and outside the COM-T, that we can leverage through key strategic initiatives in order to capture our full potential.

Q: What’s your leadership style?
A: I think it is fair to say that leadership styles evolve over time. Part of this is that both careers and demands evolve. In addition, social norms also evolve over time. As a result, I believe that my leadership style has evolved from always leading from the front to mostly leading from the middle, with broad input and consensus, empowering those at the front, but as the need arises, transiently ‘helicoptering’ back to the front. Therefore, I would describe my leadership style as fluid, depending on the situation, and on who else is there to lead from the front at a particular moment in time. In an ideal situation, the leadership team should be broad and deep allowing for appropriate but watchful delegation of responsibilities. But depending on the situation, when external or unforeseen pressures arise that require decisive actions, especially when leaders in the front lines ask for support, the balance of responsibilities may need to shift temporarily until the situation stabilizes.

At the end of the day, all leaders need to be accountable for their decisions and the consequences of their actions, and principles of accountability need to be engendered and espoused by the entire leadership team. This all said, I strongly believe that one of the most important considerations for a leader is to give credit and praise to others when things are going well, while looking in the mirror and assuming responsibility and accountability when they are not.

Q: Do you have any hobbies outside of work?
A: I am a surgeon, so I like working with my hands; I enjoy working on old British sports cars and working around the house. My wife Debbie and I also love collecting antiques.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like our faculty and staff to know about you? 
A: As I said earlier, I am an eternal optimist. I always give people and situations the benefit of the doubt where possible. Also, I highly value a discipline of honesty, integrity, and transparency.