Cerra shares Academic Health Center’s plan for future success

Mike Enright

After recently delivering the annual “State of the Academic Health Center” address, Senior Vice President Frank Cerra discussed present and future conditions of the AHC with the Daily.

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For more information about the Academic Health Center, go to: www.ahc.umn.edu

In your speech you called the current state of the AHC “excellent.” What are some examples of this success?

We’ve doubled the amount of sponsored project revenue. We’re able to recruit who we want most of the time. We have focused the areas we’re recruiting in.

Our relationship with Fairview is doing very well. We’ve run out of space to recruit people into. That’s a great sign. We’re doing more now in interdisciplinary education or interprofessional education than we ever have.

So those are really signs of good health. Some of those also give you some indication we need an investment of resources in faculty and facilities to get where we need to go, and go from excellent to outstanding.

How is the AHC planning to build on this current level of success?

I think there are several strategies. One is to try and improve productivity. I think there’s some room for that, although I think for the most part we have a capacity issue. We need more people. So, focusing the areas of research – which the faculty is doing – recruiting more people and getting more space are the big three.

Are making improvements in these areas ways in which the AHC can ensure its future goals are met?

Yes, along with two other things: resources, which we’re asking the state for and we need to work more ourselves in the marketplace and in philanthropy. And No. 2, we must do this with the rest of the University.

What will move the AHC together is what President Bruininks is leading the University through in strategic positioning. We have to move forward as an institution, not just as one piece of an institution. That’s critical.

Are there specific areas where the AHC lags behind?

One of the big risks we have now is facilities. We need facilities that support modern education, and we need facilities to support clinical practice and we need facilities to support research.

The second thing is we need the resources to recruit and retain faculty. The recruitment of faculty right now is a market that is very competitive … which means you need the facilities and you need the resources to do the recruits. The recruits don’t take six months, not a year; frequently they take two or three years.

The third risk is the salary structure that our faculty is paid in. Over half the faculty in the medical school, for instance, is paid below the 50th percentile of their peers. That isn’t going to keep people here.

I think the fourth area of risk is in the research infrastructure. And that’s not just the facilities piece, but it’s all the equipment, the equipment renewal, those kinds of things. We really need an investment there, and that’s part of what we’re asking from the state of Minnesota.

Is the key to success then simply securing more state funding?

No, I think it needs to go beyond state funding. We need to do more with gifts, we need to do more in the marketplace, and it’s that plus state money. I don’t think we can rely on the state for all of it, but it is a critical piece of it, particularly when it comes to building facilities and getting recurring dollars to support faculty salaries.

In your speech, you spoke extensively about the AHC continuing to improve its research. Is research the most important piece to success?

No. Research is important. Education is important. The ability to deliver top-shelf patient-centered clinical care is important. The metaphor I use is a braid, and you can’t take one strand of the braid and have a health sciences center.

The goal of the research is to prevent, treat and cure disease. You can’t do that unless you teach the next generation. In order to do that, you need the proper clinical facilities to do it in. It’s that braid that’s key to understand.

You had also said that by 2011 you thought the AHC could gain national recognition for interdisciplinary research and education. What needs to happen for that goal to be met in the next four years?

I think we’re already a national leader in interdisciplinary research and interprofessional education. I’m saying by four to five years from now, that will be our reputation. And that’s going to take everything we’ve talked about in terms of the resource base.

You have estimated the AHC needs 300 more faculty in order to make its future research goals. Where are those faculty members going to come from, and how will we pay for them?

We’ve talked about the resource piece, so that would be a little redundant. But we’re going to have to recruit them, and that means going out and competing with our friends from Wisconsin and Iowa and Michigan and UCLA, which means you need the facilities and resources to do it with.

But it also means we need to recruit jointly with all the schools of the Institute of Technology and the College of Biological Sciences in order to get the interprofessional, interdisciplinary leverage.

In other words, you’re not going to put a new product on the market unless you’re working with chemists and engineers and physicists and those kinds of things.

During your speech, you said you had heard concerns from faculty that the sense of competition felt with other institutions may be a bit overwhelming, and it may be tough to maintain statewide relationships in the future. How do you plan to address those issues and concerns?

I don’t think the competition is a big worry for the faculty. I think they know they can compete, and we compete very well for sponsored projects. I think the competition occurs on two levels: It’s competing with sister institutions for sponsored projects like the (National Institutes of Health), and, in competing with sister institutions, that you’ve got the facility and the resources for them to come here instead of go somewhere else.