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Q & A with James T. Willerson, M.D., Regarding UTHealth
After nearly 20 years at the UT Health Science Center, James T. Willerson, M.D., is stepping down as president. Dr. Willerson came to the Medical School in 1989 as the chair of the Department of Internal Medicine. The UT System Regents appointed him the fourth president of the UT Health Science Center March 9, 2001.
A native of Lampasas, Texas, both his father and mother were physicians. He graduated from The University of Texas at Austin and received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine, with honors. He completed his residency and fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Prior to joining the UT Medical School faculty, he was on the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.
In fall 2004, he was named president elect of the Texas Heart Institute (THI). He relinquished his health science center presidency and assumed his new position at THI on Aug. 1, the same day the new president of the UT Health Science Center, Larry Kaiser, M.D., began work.
After almost 20 years at the UT Health Science Center, as you embark upon a new chapter at the Texas Heart Institute, how does it feel to be saying farewell?
Difficult. I am very proud of what many people working together at the UT Health Science Center have done to invigorate it, and to embrace the notion that we needed to build the structural resources that would allow us to expand our class sizes at all of our schools; markedly enhance our basic research and translational research programs for the benefit of patients with medical diseases of all kinds; to recruit some of the very best scientists, educators, and health care professionals in the world; and to enhance collaborations between the UT Health Science Center at Houston and other institutions in the Texas Medical Center, as well as with UT Austin and the UT System, and its component institutions.
I don't plan to say farewell. I intend in my position with the Texas Heart Institute to work very hard to enhance collaboration between the Texas Heart Institute, UT Austin, UT System and its component institutions, and the UT Health Science Center at Houston, and, of course, the IMM (Institute for Molecular Medicine). I am so much a part of The University of Texas, having served as a faculty member at UT Southwestern and UT Health Science Center for 36 years and being given the privilege of attending The University of Texas at Austin even earlier, where I received a first-rate education and had the wonderful opportunity to compete in intercollegiate athletics on the swim team, that there would be no way for me to separate my interests, my energies, or my devotion from The University of Texas generally. So, I'm not saying farewell, but I will be moving to try to help the Texas Heart Institute reach yet a higher level in its research, education, and service programs. I do this with a strong hope that I will be able to help bring entities together within the Texas Medical Center and with the Texas Heart Institute, especially in cardiovascular programs.
Looking back, what most surprised you about being president? Can anyone be prepared for that role?
I was surprised at the magnitude of the problems of the health science center as I walked in as president, first as interim president in September of 2000 and then as president in March of 2001. I knew that we had not built anything in the prior 25 years, nor had we raised very much money for any programs. I also knew that we had such a great need to recruit the very best scientists, educators, and health care professionals and to build urgently the buildings and to provide some financial support that would allow one to change all of this. After all, this is The University of Texas, and nothing about it can be inferior or average. Everything about it has to be among the very best.
In June 2001, three months after I became president, we had the visit from Tropical Storm Allison, with $165 million in damage to our Medical School, the loss of all of our research animals, the inability to enter the Medical School for a period of about four weeks, the loss to our practice plan financially at that time, and the dispiriting effect that had. I don't believe anyone can be prepared for all of the challenges one will face in a role such as the one I've played, but we were very fortunate and absolutely determined to change all of this. We were able to convince the Legislature, the people of Houston, and the UT System to help us in this recovery process, and each of these entities became increasingly more
involved in subsequent years as we demonstrated our commitment and ability to raise money, recruit outstanding educators, scientists, and health care professionals.
You began your career at the UT Health Science Center at the Medical School in 1989. Where do you see the Medical School in the next 5-10 years?
With the building of the new research space and the presence of the IMM, the appointment of great new leaders, the enlargement of the Medical School classes to 230 students in the incoming freshman group, and with the help of the Legislature, the people of Houston and Texas, and the UT System, I believe that our Medical School will rank in the top 20 medical schools in the country in the next few years.
Of all of your accomplishments as a clinician, educator, researcher, administrator, what are you most proud of?
The opportunities that I've had to serve in all of the roles and also to help build The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston to its current position - one that I believe is truly poised for greatness.
Full text of the interview conducted by Darla Brown may be found in the Fall 2008 edition of UT-Houston Medicine.
by Darla Brown, Medical School