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Positioned for societal impact

The health sciences play an integral role in our university mission and service to the community.

This piece originally appeared on the Good Notes blog

As an integrated academic and health care system, the University of Utah is uniquely positioned to tackle the complex issues in our society. We can bring interdisciplinary groups together to solve problems. This distinguishing feature is one of the reasons I was most excited to serve as university president.

Pandemic response: What we learned

As a comprehensive Tier 1 research university, there are numerous opportunities for leveraging our strengths to have a positive impact on society. The role we played in the statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic is a powerful example.

While serving as dean of the David Eccles School of Business, I participated on Utah’s Unified Command COVID-19 Response Team as an economic advisor. We were tasked with minimizing unemployment and the fatality rate. To achieve these objectives, I helped to mobilize the resources of our university. We needed to understand the virus to make informed decisions. We organized teams of U economists and epidemiologists and launched a randomized sampling plan to understand the prevalence of the disease in the state.

As a result, we knew prevalence rates and the impact on different age groups much earlier than the rest of the country. Collecting this data about our population allowed us to make Utah-specific decisions. Our teams conducted studies on mask wearing and its impact on economic activity and the spread of the disease. We also researched the positive impact masking was having in schools. This led to our recommendation for a statewide mask mandate to save lives and boost commercial activity. And this work continues with more than 400 active COVID-19 research projects taking place across our campus to understand the virus better.

I believe that continuing to merge our expertise in academics and health sciences will prove to be our “secret sauce” in the future.

Essential role of Health Sciences

The health sciences play an integral role in our university mission and service to the community. Our health care system is the way we reach across the state. As we make investments in new health care facilities, we have the exciting opportunity to think about other services we can offer.

We are in the preliminary planning stages for a new U of U Health Center in West Valley City. The vision is much broader than serving as a community hospital. In addition to increased access to health care, this is an opportunity to collaborate with community partners to maximize the educational and economic well-being of a community. A new training program will make it possible for those living in West Valley City to receive skills that will qualify them to work at the envisioned future health center. This is yet another way for an institution of higher education to have meaningful, lasting impact on the communities it serves.

I receive my own health care at University of Utah Health and can attest to the remarkable quality of care our providers deliver. From the wayfinding to the people who assist you along the way, it’s a seamless patient experience. The attention to detail and attention to the individual is really remarkable.

As part of my listening and learning tour of campus, I visited with leaders and frontline providers at University of Utah Hospital. We know that care teams are stretched thin. We owe a debt of gratitude to the health care providers, educators, and researchers who continue to see us through the pandemic. Your dedication is truly inspiring!

I also visited the Nora Eccles Harrison Cardiovascular Research and Training Institute (CVRTI). The first artificial heart was developed at the U, followed by the first artificial heart transplant. Robin Shaw, MD, PhD, director at CVRTI, talked about how we are building on that legacy with a new gene therapy that can restore a failing heart.

The more I learn about how we are innovating in clinical care, research, and education, the more optimistic I am about the future of health care and our capacity for solving basic problems and prolonging life.

Keeping the course while thinking big

As dean of the David Eccles School of Business, I took part in leadership discussions and open sessions that helped to inform the strategic roadmap established by my predecessor, President Ruth Watkins. I believe our current strategy is directionally solid. As I continue visiting different areas of our campus, I hope to more clearly define our plan and identify the resources needed to reach our goals. I like to say, “Strategy without resources results in frustration.”

I believe organizations should have big goals for what they want to be. I’m currently seeking broad input on how and why the University of Utah would become a top 10 public institution. National rankings aside, I’d like us to consider the potential societal impact we could have as a top 10 public university. Undoubtedly, our expertise and accomplishments in health sciences will play a key role in our future potential.

Caring for ourselves and each other

Health and well-being are among the cross-cutting initiatives of my Operation Bold Transition Plan. As an institution of higher learning, we must commit to monitoring and improving the health of one another—on our campus and throughout our communities. Fostering a culture of wellness creates an exceptional workplace and learning environment.

U of U Health is helping to lead the way. It was one of the first academic health systems in the nation to appoint a Chief Wellness Officer to support the physical and mental health of employees. I’m impressed with the collaborative approach—harnessing wellness and mental health expertise across the health system—to ensure workforce resilience and community-building are strategic priorities.

Onward and upward

As I meet more of you, I am truly inspired by the quality of our students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Although I’ve been affiliated with the university for decades, my current role provides a global view of the work and learning taking place here and expands my appreciation for this incredible institution and campus community. One bold step at a time, we can change the world around us.