From today's Synapse
"The Impact of Dean Kessler’s Dismissal on Students at the UCSF School of Medicine"
More than a month has passed since Dr. David Kessler unexpectedly announced the termination of his appointment as dean of the School of Medicine at UCSF in a puzzling e-mail sent to medical students and faculty members on December 14, 2007.
In the oft-quoted missive, Dr. Kessler alleges that his efforts to rectify “a series of financial irregularities that predated [his] appointment” led “the university” to characterize him as “a whistleblower.” In June 2007, UCSF Chancellor Dr. J. Michael Bishop requested the former FDA commissioner’s resignation. Although Dr. Kessler refused, the Chancellor formally terminated his appointment as dean on Thursday, December 13, 2008, “effective immediately.”
In his correspondence with Synapse, Dr. Bishop declined to comment and referred to his statement released December 17, 2007. The Chancellor declares that “action was taken only after extensive deliberations over many months among the leadership at UCSF, the President and Provost of the University of California, and appropriate Regents.” Dr. Bishop also asserts that “the University categorically denies that the action was taken in retaliation for any allegation lodged against the School of Medicine or the University,” and that “the reasons for dismissal must be held in confidence, in compliance with university policy and state law.” Finally, the Chancellor maintains that “Three separate reviews of the School’s finances were performed over the course of the past three years by three separate agencies. All found the finances to be sound, and none uncovered any evidence of financial irregularities.”
Nevertheless, the abrupt dismissal of a high-profile dean from a well-known medical school has prompted a flurry of local and national media coverage. Moreover, the unorthodox method in which Dr. Kessler announced his startling dismissal has ignited a firestorm of gossip and speculation among medical students and faculty in the vacuum created by the absence of any detailed official account.
A second-year medical student who requested his name be withheld remarked that Dr. Kessler’s e-mail “dropped the bomb and then forwarded news articles filled in a fuzzy picture. The situation is confusing because we don’t know who was wronged. But ultimately, I am not worried that the changes will affect our education or UCSF’s standing.”
A fourth-year medical student who also requested his name to be withheld commented, “It’s disappointing that the individuals involved were not able to place the needs and interests of the UCSF community first in this process and instead chose to air their discontent publicly.”
Several found the timing of Dr. Kessler’s dismissal in December when most students were away or preparing for winter break to be problematic. Although the event may have been precipitated by factors out of the control of either party, Jesse Klafter (MS1) voiced a concern that the incident occurred “right before Christmas to prevent school and media scrutiny of their actions.” Whether the occasion was premeditated or not (most aspects point to the contrary), the inopportune timing of Dr. Kessler’s dismissal has prevented satisfactory public discussion within the campus-wide community, which will be remedied in the next few months according to representatives from the Associated Students of the School of Medicine (ASSM), our student body government.
During a Student Faculty Liason Committee (SFLC) meeting on January 16, 2008, ASSM Secretary Vignesh Arasu (MS2) remarked, “Students didn’t feel prepared to hear the news. The timing was just at the beginning of our vacation, or for us second years, the day before our final exam. We have moved on, but not without lingering questions in the back of our head. We are also concerned with how it has affected our reputation, in terms of recruiting future students and faculty. According to many fourth years who are interviewing for residency, they have been asked about the firing in their interviews and put in a difficult situation to provide a realistic answer.”
On the ASSM discussion board, Arasu articulated another key issue: “There are also reasons against pursuing [Dr. Kessler’s dismissal] further. Is this divisive? Will this prevent us from moving forward as a school? Will anything come out of this? Will we be pulling ourselves into the middle of a controversy that we don’t want? Will this hold us back from accepting interim Dean Hawgood? But I remind you that there have been further facts about the situation that various people have gotten through faculty and that Dean Kessler has shared with the news outlets, but there is nothing that we have been officially told.”
The most troubling aspect of the dismissal has thus proven to be lack of transparency. Fortunately, UCSF has taken measures to correct this official reticence by arranging for the Interim Dean, Dr. Sam Hawgood, to speak at the SFLC meeting on January 16.
“Dean Hawgood went into a lengthy discussion of the events and his interpretation. Overall, and I feel like I can speak for all of us present at the meeting, Hawgood came across as honest and frank, and didn’t try to avoid the issue and was open to questions,” observed Arasu.
Irene Kang (MS2 ASSM representative) added that Dean Hawgood “believes in the integrity of both Dean Kessler and Chancellor Bishop, and doesn’t feel either is wrong in this situation. He has looked at all the same financial documents as Dean Kessler has and believes Dean Kessler’s interpretation of the finances is really a matter of perspective, as there are ‘many ways’ of looking at the numbers. After reviewing many reports, he has come to shares the sentiment of the Chancellor that UCSF is not in debt but in fact in strong financial condition.”
Moreover, Dean Hawgood pointed out at the ASSM meeting that “since the Dean serves “at the pleasure” of the Chancellor… the reasons for his firing may be as simple as a clash of personalities. He does not believe the firing was a result the Dean’s difference of opinion on finances. What may be implied is that the firing was a cumulative effect of many conflicting points of view over the time that they spent working together.”
Most importantly, ASSM representatives noted that “Dean Hawgood is interested and willing to hold a public forum with students for him to introduce himself, describe what has happened as he did at the ASSM meeting, do a Q&A, and discuss the search committee for selecting the future dean.”