A Message from the Dean: The 'First 100 Days'

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Dear Colleagues:

I have now been your Dean for 100 days. I thought it might make sense to share some thoughts with you in the spirit of conscious leadership and collaborative thinking.

Let me first state upfront that I had been well briefed prior to coming to the University of Arizona, and as a result, I have encountered relatively no surprises compared to my expectations. I anticipated a number of challenges, viewing these as opportunities and I have therefore, together with my leadership team, as well as the Banner leadership team, been busy tackling these. These opportunities, in no particular order, include but are not limited to the following:

  • Improving our research portfolio to include, where possible, more opportunities for collaborative initiatives with our external partners, as well as between disciplines, departments and colleges at UArizona.
  • Ensuring a successful LCME re-accreditation in January 2022, including recruitment of curriculum leadership.
  • Ensuring a successful relationship with our clinical partner Banner Health that abrogates the pervasive ‘us and them’ culture while addressing significant issues that prevent us from achieving some of the typical key success factors of a true Academic Health System.
  • Re-building the relationship between COM-T and the Southern Arizona Veteran’s Administration (VA) at a number of levels.
  • Changing the relationship between COM-T and COM-P to a less competitive and more collaborative and synergistic partnership.
  • Recruiting a number of crucial department chairs while improving and streamlining our recruitment process.
  • Improving our fundraising and development activities.

To begin addressing these issues, we have taken the following steps:

  • We were successful in recruiting Dr. Jason Wertheim as vice dean for scientific initiatives. Dr. Wertheim will focus on performing a field survey of our current research portfolio, and will meet with the chairs and department members in order to identify potential collaborative scientific initiatives that might result in funding opportunities from both public and private funding sources. He will seek out potential collaborations with the VA and both within and outside COM-T at UArizona. Please feel free to reach out to him ( with any thoughts, ideas for initiatives or other input. In addition, he will help facilitate a re-submission of the CTSA that received a better score than prior CTSA submissions, but fell short of the funding range.
  • We have been working with Dr. Kevin Moynahan towards the successful recruitment for curriculum leadership. We have also pro-actively engaged an outside reviewer to prepare us for the LCME visit beyond our self-surveys. Dr. Diane Wayne, vice dean for education at Northwestern University, will visit with us in February. I have asked her to provide a critical review as we identify our weaknesses and address these with specific corrective actions well ahead of the LCME visit.
  • We are working closely with Banner – University Medicine Division (BUMD) leadership on many fronts, including but not limited to, a previously planned re-alignment of compensation and funding of clinical and clinical leadership activity. As you all know, together with Banner Health, we recently made the decision to honor our original agreement in the Academic Affiliation Agreement to continue university employment of over 100 faculty members who are engaged in clinical work rather than arrange to transition them from UArizona to Banner employment. We continue to actively work with BUMD leadership on other aspects of the re-alignment proposal as well as working together with an outside consultant to make sure that our compensation plan is fair, competitive, and aligns clinical compensation with productivity. I cannot over-emphasize the level of collaboration that currently exists between COM-T and Drs. Chad Whelan and Joshua Lee to ensure that decisions on a number of these issues will be made carefully, thoughtfully, and in the spirit of a true partnership. We will keep the chairs informed of these discussions as they proceed. As we all know, approval by the Academic Management Committee (AMC) will be sought prior to any refinement and implementation that will in turn require department chair and faculty input. Drs. Dake and Robbins have been deeply engaged with senior Banner Health leadership to make sure that all decisions take into account the interests of the partnership as well as those of the individual partners. 
  • As you all know, we are currently undertaking a re-assessment of ACGME slots across BUMD in order to identify opportunities for improved alignment between the need and availability of GME slots. In the interim, we have addressed individual issues as they arise using a defined process; the most recent example consists of addressing 12 GME slots through the VA. We hope to bring this issue to a successful end in short order.
  • I have now met at least twice with all department chairs to discuss ‘current state’ in order to begin planning a ‘future state,’ identifying key metrics for the tripartite mission for clinical departments and for the academic missions in basic science departments. I have asked the chairs to engage their divisions and sections in this effort. I plan to meet with all chairs in the summer to assess progress towards projected 1, 2, and 3-year metrics for each mission. I have also started attending department faculty meetings (when invited) and will continue to do so in an effort to become better acquainted with more faculty and to answer questions directly. In addition, I now have an Arizona medical license and should have my Banner privileges in short order. I hope to have some clinical activity that will enable me to engage with clinical faculty ‘in the clinical trenches.’ Also, I will begin some research planning activities soon so that I can attend relevant seminars that will hopefully offer an opportunity to engage directly with research faculty in our academic areas as well.
  • We have four ongoing and active chair searches at various stages. A month ago, we instituted a new process for chair recruitment with a strict timeline for each. We are on track with all four. These searches include the departments of Medical Imaging, Ophthalmology, Psychiatry, and Neurosurgery. February and March will be very busy recruitment months as we hopefully near the end of two and possibly three of these searches according to our timelines. We have included both the VA and COM-P in these searches (see point above regarding our approach to these valuable partners). As new chair searches come on line, we will apply our new process to ensure both efficiencies and results. We hope to have positive news on these searches in in the coming weeks. It is clear that tackling some of the important issues that face us will require strong leadership at the department and division levels, and therefore these searches are crucial to our success.
  • We are working with the UArizona Foundation leadership to identify and recruit senior development officers for UAHS and COM-T, and we are currently working with a couple of specific areas to initiate specific fundraising opportunities.

In addition to these achievements, there are a couple of other initiatives worthy of mention:

  • We have successfully recruited a leader of the COM-T Information Technology (IT) office, Ed Xia, MBA, formerly the leader of the IT unit at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. One of Ed’s first priorities is to assure that we are all HIPAA trained and compliant in our communication and use of HIPPA protected information. His vision revolves around three tenets: 1) provide the best service to our faculty; 2) engage our faculty who express an interest in developing novel IT initiatives in their departments; and 3) make our faculty aware of novel IT approaches that can be applied to specific department initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to Ed at
  • We are reconstituting our financial team. To this end, we recruited Christie Gray as Deputy Dean for finance and business affairs, and more recently Jason Marr, CPA, who has served as BUMD’s Director of Finance, as Assistant Dean for Finance, effective March 23rd. On a related note, we are formalizing a financial reporting structure for COM-T. This is essential as we near budget submissions. An initial version has been presented to the chairs and center directors at the last monthly Dean’s Executive Council meeting. This will allow us to facilitate monitoring and discussing college finances throughout the academic year.
  • We have instituted an ‘investiture ceremony’ for new or reassigned endowed chairs, similar to that at other institutions. Our first will take place this month and we will recognize existing faculty holding endowed chairs with a UArizona endowed chair medallion to be worn at various formal celebrations.
  • We have submitted an application to the provost’s office (in addition to receiving a grant for a ‘Bachelor’s degree in Medicine’ last year) to initiate an Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME) that would entail direct admission of extremely highly qualified high school students into a seven-year program that includes three years of undergraduate work followed by guaranteed admission to COM-T. There are currently approximately 30 such programs in the U.S. allowing access to truly outstanding students who have expressed an early interest in the study of medicine.
  • We have been working with the office of the senior vice president of research and the UArizona tech transfer office to make sure that we continue to modernize our ability to facilitate commercialization of any inventions created at UArizona. In a recent case, we were able to make sure that all stakeholders were satisfied with language that protects all parties while allowing progress to be made unimpeded by necessary legalities.
  • Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the work done prior to my arrival that made possible our recently announced program whereby UArizona medical students will have the opportunity to attend either COM-T or COM-P free of tuition as long as they agree to provide stipulated service as primary care physicians (family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, geriatrics, psychiatry, ob/gyn) in Arizona when they complete their training. The first 29 scholarships were awarded in late January, and we anticipate that approximately 100 scholarships will be awarded next year. This was possible because of an $8M recurring annual grant from the State of Arizona.
  • And last but not least, our NIH ranking was released by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research this past week: we ranked #47 ($113,505,125 – total funding) compared with #51 in 2018. This is up from #55, #61, and #66 in previous successive years. Congratulations and thank you for this tremendous achievement. We are now among the top 50 NIH funded Colleges of Medicine. We look forward to continuing this progression.  

I started the letter by stating that I have not encountered any real surprises since arriving. I should qualify this further by specifically mentioning that one of the biggest ‘non-surprises’ has been the anticipated willingness of everyone to roll up their sleeves and work hard towards goals articulated above, as well as others. Despite a number of harsh realities that we have faced and continue to face us, there is an increasing level of positive energy, engagement and optimism that I hope will continue as together, we knock down impediments and accumulate successes. I am proud to be part of a team that seeks nothing short of academic excellence.


Michael Abecassis