Medical School gets board’s eye

At their last meeting, regents checked in with how the school is working to improve its rank.

Blair Emerson

University of Minnesota regents are keeping administrators on their toes as the Medical School’s leaders work to boost its prestige.

This month, a Board of Regents committee reviewed the school’s progress toward improving its national ranking, a goal set last year when faculty members created a long-term strategy with designs to attract research dollars and revamp scholarships.

Many school officials say Medical School Dean and Vice President for Health Sciences Dr. Brooks Jackson, who has touted high hopes for the institution since he took the job in February, is well-positioned to ensure the school achieves a top standing.

Besides an internal push for success, Gov. Mark Dayton formed the Blue Ribbon Committee in August to provide guidance for the Medical School. Regents will discuss the committee’s recommendations in December.

“I think having a premier medical school is just crucial to having a premier state university,” Dayton said.

The governor noted that the school’s current rankings — like No. 34 in “best research,” according to the 2014 U.S. News and World Report — are unacceptable.

“That’s not good enough,” he said.

In the next five years, Jackson said, he wants the Medical School to stand among the top 20 schools for its research. And eventually, he would like the school to rank in the nation’s top 14 medical schools.

The Medical School’s vision includes efforts like addressing leadership turnover, securing national funding for medical research, improving education and advancing clinical care. The plan’s step-by-step process aims to help the school “regain its position of excellence” by 2025.

Regents put the Academic Health Center and the Medical School at the top of their priority list beginning July 2013, when they created a special committee to examine the school more closely, said Regent Linda Cohen, who chairs the committee.

“We felt that there hadn’t been a place where [the Medical School] was reported on in-depth,” she said. “That’s why we thought we needed more oversight than we were having.”

After reviewing the school’s progress this month, Cohen said she was pleased Jackson’s plans to measure success didn’t include “lofty verbiage.”

The committee will check on those metrics in May to evaluate progress.

Members of Dayton’s Blue Ribbon committee have attended three meetings, and they are due to give recommendations to the governor, the state Legislature and the public on Dec. 15, said Dr. Elizabeth Seaquist, a member of the Blue Ribbon Committee and University medicine professor.

Right now, the group is in the process of gathering information — like the state’s health workforce needs — to submit at the end of the year.

“The mission of the Medical School is broad,” Seaquist said. “We are a research institution. We train most of the doctors in the state, provide clinical care, [and] we need to do all three of those.”

Medical School administrators are pursuing wide-ranging changes to meet the goals of regents and the state government.

One major criterion for ranking medical schools is the amount of funding they receive from the National Institutes of Health, Jackson said, and increasing this type of support will be vital for the school’s success in research.

For fiscal year 2014, the Medical School received more than $140 million in National Institutes of Health funding — about the same as the year before.

Tucker LeBien, the Academic Health Center’s associate vice president for research, said the “flat” levels of NIH funding for research across the country have adversely affected University researchers.

Affordable tuition is also a priority, Jackson said.

The average Medical School student leaves the University with about $186,000 in debt, Jackson said, adding that school officials are considering pilot programs to shorten the time it takes to get a medical degree.

Currently, an undergraduate degree takes four years to earn, but Jackson said that time could be reduced to three years so students could save money.

School officials will also work to encourage more students to publish research before graduation, Jackson said.

Jackson said the school would like to conduct more clinical research — specifically “bench to bedside” research, which focuses on clinical trials and patient outcomes.

“In the past, this has not been emphasized as much,” he said.