Cerra’s legacy of reform

Outgoing Frank Cerra helped restore trust in the University's health sciences.

Once upon a time, good journalism âÄî even editorials critical of leadership âÄî valued fact and context. TuesdayâÄôs editorial on the contribution of Dr. Frank Cerra to the University of Minnesota did him a huge injustice. To characterize the past 14 years as having âÄúseemingly persistent troubles with conflicts of interestâÄù is simply inaccurate. If you didnâÄôt live through the dark period of the mid-1990s, you probably donâÄôt recall the effort to eliminate tenure, the close vote on faculty unionization, the financial troubles of the University hospital leading to its sale and worst of all, the National Institutes of Health sanctions on the University because of research compliance failures. Cerra did not cause these problems, but he accepted his new leadership role in part to lead us in redefining our vision and direction. One of the first things he did after his appointment was to begin critical reforms to restore the UniversityâÄôs good standing with the NIH. Cerra appointed a team, which established a grants management process that the NIH recognized as exemplary. Part of this process was the creation of the individual conflict-of-interest policy that has recently been revised. CerraâÄôs leadership helped to restore trust in the UniversityâÄôs health sciences and staunched the hemorrhage of young faculty. This was key because the strength of the Academic Health Center rests on our ability to recruit and retain top faculty in dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and veterinary medicine. Today, our top faculty lead research in emerging fields that cross traditional disciplines. Recruiting and maintaining academic strength in these fields requires an administrative balance to ensure adequate freedoms (academic and other) while providing structured support and performance guidelines. This balance canâÄôt be achieved at every turn, and the most demanding, interesting and fulfilling aspects of academic leadership remain the issues that arise from the human beings who serve this institution as faculty. Cerra helped champion the Biomedical Discovery District. In 1999, we tore down three lab buildings that housed health sciences faculty alone and replaced them with the facility that is mostly occupied by the College of Biological Sciences programs and joint Medical School-College of Biological Sciences science departments. The Biomedical Discovery District replaced old buildings in which health sciences researchers were âÄúlab-lockedâÄù âÄî unable to pursue important academic work despite significant external funding. Without CerraâÄôs vision and tireless effort, we would not now have these first-class laboratory facilities. Instead, we would be an âÄúalso-ranâÄù University. These facilities arenâÄôt merely to spur economic development, theyâÄôre necessary to support faculty research, to recruit and retain academic leaders and to generate discoveries that improve health across the state of Minnesota and beyond. Finally, defining oneâÄôs âÄúlegacyâÄù is never in a leaderâÄôs complete control because it is shaped over time from multiple views âÄî detractors and supporters alike. Cerra himself likely has his own list of accomplishments and disappointments during his tenure as do all outstanding leaders. But at a minimum, one hopes for some adherence to facts and context although interpretations may differ. And therein lies the main issue. When we forget history or attempt to cleverly rewrite what actually happened at this institution, we risk repeating mistakes of the past. That is something we cannot afford at the University. Trevor Ames, dean, College of Veterinary Medicine; Connie Delaney, dean, School of Nursing; John Finnegan, dean, School of Public Health; Patrick Lloyd, dean, School of Dentistry; Mark Paller, executive vice dean, Medical School; Marilyn Speedie, dean, College of Pharmacy. Please send comments to [email protected]