Strong Medicine

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / May / June 2004
June 15th, 2007
From the outset, Brown kept its Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME) at a fiscal arm’s length, insisting that it be self-supporting. Now, administrators have announced what amounts to a sea change: a wide-ranging plan to increase support for biological sciences and medicine, investing $475 million over the next decade. Richard Besdine, the acting dean of medicine and biological sciences, described the plan as “a bold step, a recognition ... that you can’t be a first-rate research university-college without excellence in biological science.”

The plan calls for a 30 percent increase in life science faculty and the facilities to house them, as well as expanding the Medical School and public health program. Some established projects are included in the plan, such as two research buildings already under construction: 70 Ship Street, a former jewelry district factory slated to open next fall, and the Life Sciences Building on Meeting Street, scheduled for occupancy in spring 2006. Another is Brown’s collaboration with the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, announced earlier this year.

The most significant change may prove to be structural: Brown has signed a series of partnership agreements with the hospitals at which its medical students and residents are trained. Provost Robert Zimmer describes them as “a mechanism for aligning resources.” Hospital-based faculty, he says, “were all crying for strategic leadership”—a virtual impossibility given the intense competition among the hospitals and a deanship with no real authority over their staffs.

Until now, Besdine says, “the dean has had very little role in the design and implementation of research in the hospitals.” The challenge, he says, was to “bring to the table a carrot so big and so sweet they couldn’t resist”—namely the chance to improve clinical care (and their competitiveness) through multidisciplinary research. Although Rhode Island clinical care has improved vastly over the past thirty years (the state is now a net importer of patients), research tends to be isolated in “silos,” Besdine says: “If you look at Brown’s academic medicine center with a dispassionate eye, what is missing are the transdepartmental, multidisciplinary research programs that are the signature of a first-rate academic medicine center—whether in cancer, or musculoskeletal or cardiovascular research.”

The dean will serve as chief academic officer for each of the hospital partnerships—providing leverage in faculty hiring, as well as coordinating research and training. Over the next five years Brown has agreed to provide the dean $12.5 million for academic purposes, and the hospitals will kick in another $1.5 million a year for academic enrichment. Brown is currently conducting a national search for a dean, and these changes should strengthen the University’s hand.

Administrators aim to see the Medical School ranked in the first quartile nationally, and to see key residencies in the top twenty. They plan to increase the Medical School student body by about a third, to 400. Starting next fall, on a pilot basis, eight to ten students will be admitted from traditional undergraduate pre-med programs (now the vast majority of Brown’s med students come through the PLME, which they enter as freshmen). Zimmer says the PLME will remain “at least the size it is” but that additional students will be recruited to “increase the intellectual diversity.”

Expanding Brown’s public health program is another priority. The existing group has “been extremely successful,” says Zimmer, “and we have the opportunity to develop that into a full program.” The focus on public health is consistent with the University’s “historic sense of social responsibility and social obligation,” he says, “which demands that we think not just about individuals but the larger community.”

The Corporation endorsed the proposals at its February meeting, but no announcement was made until the first of the hospital agreements was signed in April.

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May / June 2004