UT names first dean of Dell Medical School

The first dean of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas likes to run before dawn. He’ll need that kind of energy for the marathon task of overseeing construction, hiring, curriculum development, admissions and other matters that must be addressed if the school is to enroll its first students in fall 2016 as planned.

Clay Johnston’s bosses, new ones and old alike, say he’s up to the challenge. UT on Tuesday announced the appointment of Johnston, 49, currently associate vice chancellor of research for the University of California, San Francisco, one of the nation’s leading health science centers.

UT is getting “one of our top guys, but I couldn’t be more proud of him,” said Sam Hawgood, dean of medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs at the San Francisco campus. “He’s looked at other top leadership positions in the past. I’ve fought hard and successfully to keep him at UCSF. When he told me he was looking at this job, I knew I was done. It’s such a good fit for him.”

UT is the first tier-one university in decades to establish a new medical school, and officials say innovation will be woven into the DNA of its educational, research and clinical-care missions.

Like UT and its partners — notably the Seton Healthcare Family and Central Health, Travis County’s health care district — Johnston envisions a team approach in which pharmacists, nurses and other health care workers, not just doctors, are integral parts of the mix. Also in the works: a new teaching hospital, research and education buildings, and a comprehensive approach to caring for indigent patients that officials say promises to improve their health while cutting costs.

Plans also call for students to learn many of their lessons independently or in small groups, with less class time devoted to lectures and more time available for discussions and problem-solving. Their educational trajectory will include healthy doses of research and community-based clinical training.

Johnston said in an interview that he was drawn to Austin by the prospect of leading a medical school unconstrained by tradition and habit.

“It just opens all kinds of opportunities to do it right. I’m very excited to move to a new platform and create a medical school that looks like one for the new century rather than the last century. And I hope we train more primary care docs than specialists,” Johnston said, adding that achieving the latter is a tall order.

At the San Francisco school, Johnston directs the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, overseeing efforts in medical, pharmacy, nursing and other units to move research advancements from the laboratory bench to the bedside under a $112 million federal grant. He is a professor of neurology and epidemiology, directs the university’s Stroke Service and sees patients. He has authored or co-authored some 300 scientific articles, many focusing on the prevention and treatment of stroke. And, until recently, he was executive vice editor of the Annals of Neurology.

“He’s coming from an institution that is A-plus, so he knows how to build that quality in as a founding dean,” said UT President Bill Powers.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who has been a leader in efforts to establish the medical school, put it this way: “We now have a world-class dean to lead a world-class medical school.”

Johnston said it would take 20 years for the school to achieve across-the-board excellence and prominence, but he predicted that its emphasis on quality and its small size — 50 students entering each year, at least for the first four years — would offer “wonderful access” to faculty members and mentors and therefore attract top students.

“Initially, we’re creating a kind of boutique medical school,” Johnston said. “The kind of experience we can produce is going to be more than competitive.”

Johnston, who plans to see patients and continue his research once he gets settled in Austin, said his first priority is to recruit senior officials, including an associate dean for education and chairs of the medicine, surgery and pediatric departments. He’ll also be working closely with Seton and Central Health.

Seton has agreed to build, own and operate a $295 million teaching hospital on university-owned land at 15th and Red River streets, adjacent to where UT will construct a research building, a medical office building and an education and administration building. UT’s governing board has committed $25 million a year and an additional $5 million for the first eight years. Central Health has pledged to channel $35 million a year from a Travis County voter-approved property tax increase to the medical school.

Johnston said he didn’t expect problems arising from Seton’s affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church, which bars abortions and also has rules on birth control and end-of-life care.

“Seton won’t be our only partner,” he said, citing the non-Catholic St. David’s HealthCare as one example. “We have to be committed to providing an educational environment where people can learn about all aspects of women’s health.”

Although Johnston begins his new job March 1, he plans to shuttle between San Francisco and Austin before moving here in the summer with his wife and two sons.

His annual compensation will be $675,000. “If his is a bit more than mine, that’s OK,” Powers said.

It is more. The UT president is paid $624,350 a year.

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