The Big Picture

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

The Big Picture, June 10, 2014

Posted: June 10, 2014

Over the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of witnessing each student from all six of our UTHealth schools walk across their respective stage and graduate as new members of their chosen profession. Commencement is that annual recap of UTHealth’s most basic principles; and every year the faces are different, but the pride and the message are the same: “You have earned this, now go and make a difference in someone’s life.” Uniting with families, friends and professors to share our graduates' joy and well-deserved sense of accomplishment is a great moment of pride for all in attendance, and a great reminder of our university's essential purpose.

Each of our school’s distinct values and traditions are showcased during the graduation ceremony. And I am happy to provide a brief recap of each one:

Dr. Raymond Greenberg, UT System executive vice chancellor for health affairs, inspired our School of Public Health graduates and reminded us “to err is human” - referencing the IOM’s landmark paper that launched a worldwide movement in patient quality and safety. As members of an academic health center, it is important to take that sentiment a step further and remember the words of England’s former Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson: “To err is human, to cover up is unforgivable and to fail to learn is inexcusable.” This concept is one that each of our UTHealth graduates can embrace. The SPH also was recently in the spotlight as Dr. Raul Caetano, regional dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health Dallas Regional Campus was recognized with the President’s Scholar Award for Research. He is nationally known for his research on alcohol-related health disparities. The search for the successor of Dean Roberta Ness, who has made an indelible mark on UTHealth, is underway, and a strong pool of applicants is scheduled to visit the campus soon.

Dr. Greenberg also addressed our School of Nursing graduates, imploring us to fight the “status quo bias.” In addition to celebrating its graduates, the SON will soon come to terms with two big transitions, the move of Dean Patricia Starck from 30 years as School of Nursing dean to her role as leader of inter-professional education for UTHealth, and the retirement of Dr. Tom Mackey, who has served as the director of UT Health Services, the clinical practice of the School of Nursing. UTHealth is grateful to these giants for their tremendous contributions, and I will keep you apprised as our SON dean search progresses.

At Rice University, we celebrated commencement for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the school’s 50th anniversary. With our deans, Dr. Mike Blackburn and Dr. Michelle Barton at the helm, the featured speaker was our own Dr. George Stancel, executive vice president of academic and research affairs and former dean of the graduate school. Dr. Stancel has the unique distinction of having taught pharmacology to every medical school student since 1972 and has taught at all six UTHealth schools, as well as at MD Anderson, during his tenure. He explained how science is a team sport and the importance of a work-life balance. GSBS students and faculty know this well, as they have a passion for students and their career development.

In the Beth Robertson Auditorium of the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine we watched the School of Biomedical Informatics graduate its class of students. With guest speaker Texas Medical Center President and CEO Dr. Robert Robbins, the focus was on the excitement of growth, technological research and the strong support from their advisory board and the Houston community - as demonstrated by a new $1 million planned gift given by retired professor Dr. James P. Turley to establish the James Turley Memorial Endowed Scholarship for Global Health at the school. Dr. Turley also has given a $1 million planned gift in honor of his wife, establishing the Lillian Eriksen Memorial Endowed Scholarship for Global Health at the School of Nursing. I am personally grateful to Dr. Turley for his contributions and his commitment to education.

A crowded University of Houston auditorium was the setting for congratulating the School of Dentistry graduates and listening to motivating remarks from Col. Johnette Shelley, an alumnus of the school and a former classmate of Dean John Valenza. She shared how she saw Dean Valenza’s tremendous love and passion for the school even when they were students, and is not at all surprised that he is now our dean. During her unconventional and inspiring speech she also discussed the mistakes she made early in her career, and the important lessons that she learned. Lifelong learning is the foundation for any educational program at UTHealth.

More than 200 newly minted MDs received their degrees and hoods at the George R. Brown Convention Center in our final commencement ceremony of the year. Our associate dean for diversity and inclusion, Dr. Pedro Mancias, addressed the graduates, reminding them “not to confuse education with intelligence” and encouraging them to persevere even when faced with difficult patients and complex diseases. For, as Dr. Mancias continued, it is in the darkest hours, with the most vulnerable patients, that a physician is truly tested. And in that moment they must ask themselves, “If I do not help, then who will?” I would like to note that for the first time in the Medical School’s history, there were two standing ovations at this year’s commencement - one for class president Mark Gold during his remarks remembering classmate Natalie Kjar, and the other for Dr. Mancias’ humble speech.

While each of our schools is truly unique, commencement unites us all as part of UTHealth, part of the UT System, and part of Texas. Our mission is to educate and train the next generation of health professionals, and no other institution in this state graduates more health care professionals than we do. But we are more than just numbers - we are a collection of exceptional individuals as demonstrated by our students. Part of our mission is to retain our brightest stars, and I am proud that we are doing just that.

In addition to graduating another impressive class, and preparing to welcome a new one, UTHealth’s research and clinical missions also continue to thrive. Our research expenditures are solid - making a nice comeback from the national scarcity of federal funds. Our clinical programs, led by UT Physicians, remain strong. We are expanding our clinical presence across the Houston area, enabling us to provide unprecedented service to this community. This mirrors a broader national trend, with the clinical practices of medical schools fueling institutional growth and shouldering research and academic missions.

UTHealth’s growth is dependent upon a dominant clinical practice and strong relationships with our hospital partners, Harris Health System and Memorial Hermann Healthcare System. We are proud to be aligned with such robust institutions, working together to serve the Houston community and beyond.

So as we end one academic year and look ahead to the next, I am so proud of where we are today and of where we are heading as a university. And I am tremendously proud to work and study alongside each of you. You are all part of the great UTHealth legacy - and you are ensuring the health of future generations.

To that end, I would like to introduce a roadmap for our future, UTHealth's 2015-2020 Strategic Plan. This Plan is the result of months of work during which we received invaluable input from students, faculty and staff. I would like to thank the many individuals who put countless hours into its development, and all of you who provided feedback throughout the process.

The Plan will be rolled out over the summer and will serve as a guidepost in the coming years. It is an inclusive and comprehensive document, inspired by the exceptional and dedicated talents found across our six campuses and designed to help us become a top-tier academic health center. Although the Plan contains multiyear guiding principles, our environment changes quickly, and we must rely upon the individual talents of faculty and staff to enrich our university each day. I encourage you all to read it and share your thoughts and suggestions with me.

I look forward to the discussions we will have - and to working together to achieve the Plan’s goals and objectives. But first, I offer one final congratulations to our graduates, and to our entire UTHealth family, on the close of another successful academic year.

I couldn’t resist showing Dean John Valenza during his UTHealth School of Dentistry graduation. This is his clinical group from 1981 – the class size was 124. See if you can find him!
(Answer: He is on the front row, far left.)

1981 UTHealth School of Dentistry graduation