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Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier plans to resign next summer after nine years in office, the school announced Thursday, prompting the question: Will the 233-year-old school get its first female dean?
Dr. Flier, who’s 67, plans to serve his final day as dean on July 31, then stay on campus as a full professor on the school’s historic quad. He leaves a high-profile job overseeing a 12,000-person faculty that churns out over a billion dollars worth of federally funded research every year.
“This just seemed like a good transition time,” Flier told STAT in an exclusive interview in his office this week.
Harvard President Drew Faust is launching a search for his replacement.
To some, the search presents an opportunity for the world-famous school to end two centuries of male rule.
“It would well behoove Harvard Medical School to appoint a female dean,” said Dr. Laurie Glimcher, who taught there for years before becoming dean of Cornell’s medical school in 2012.
“There are certainly plenty of talented women around who could do a good job,” she said.
The dearth of women leaders isn’t unique to Harvard, Glimcher noted: Only 16 percent of medical deans in the country are women, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Faust, Harvard’s first female president, came close to picking a female dean for the medical school in 2007, when Dr. Betsy Nabel, who’s now president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, emerged as one of two finalists, according to the Boston Globe. Faust is also searching for a new dean at Harvard’s public health school.
Flier has been on the medical school faculty since 1978. Soon after becoming dean on Sept. 1, 2007, he had to deal with fallout from the national financial crisis. Flier has since revamped medical students’ curriculum, invested in primary care, strengthened ties with industry, and corralled the school’s affiliated hospitals into better collaboration.
A nationally recognized researcher on diabetes and obesity, Flier became dean at a time of prosperity. When he signed up for the job, he thought Harvard would be building a new campus in nearby Allston, allowing the medical school to expand.
When the 2008 recession hit, “all that had to be changed,” he recalled. The Allston plans were put on hold.
“Despite that very powerful blow,” Flier said, “we didn’t turn back. We did a lot of new things.”
Amid a drop in federal funding, Flier found new sources of money, in part by strengthening ties with industry — a controversial move on campus.
Flier “detoxified” the relationship between industry and the medical school, said Joshua Boger, the founder and former CEO of Cambridge-based Vertex (VRTX) Pharmaceuticals. In a sign of that closer relationship, Flier picked Boger to chair the Board of Fellows advising the medical school.
Before Flier, industry-supported research at the university was “looked on with a great deal of suspicion,” Boger said. Under Flier’s tenure, major pharmaceutical companies launched collaborations with Harvard Medical School research labs. Vertex, for example, handed out research grants to medical school faculty — something that “wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” Boger said.
Some on campus have embraced Flier’s aim of translating research into real-world applications, while others object that the closer relationship with industry “changes the nature of the academic environment,” noted Dr. Gilbert Omenn, chair of the so-called Visiting Committee that evaluates the medical school every two years. Omenn said he thinks Flier has done well in maintaining appropriate ethical guidelines while also supporting entrepreneurial ventures such as the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
In another controversial move, Flier cut $200,000 in funding to the medical school’s Division of Primary Care, prompting petitions and headlines about Harvard’s lack of investment in the area. Flier assembled a panel to examine the topic, and ended up pleasing critics by raising $30 million to create a Center for Primary Care.
His most difficult decision, he said, was to close the medical school’s primate research center, where revelations of monkey deaths drew public protests. In doing so, he walked away from some $25 million in annual grants that were coming into the center, funding research on neuroscience and HIV.
The decision “was painful personally, and painful operationally,” Flier said. He recalled visiting the center, addressing 150 people who worked there, and announcing they’d lose their jobs.
“I feel like it was the right decision,” he said. The move meant Harvard lost some prominent virologists, but Flier said those researchers are continuing their work elsewhere.
Flier said he spent a full 30 to 40 percent of his time as dean working on another challenge: Trying to build relationships with and coordinate Harvard’s network of hospitals, which have historically worked in isolation. Since Harvard doesn’t have its own hospital, it relies on 16 hospitals and clinical affiliates around Boston to train medical students and many postdoctoral fellows. Only 160 faculty are directly employed by Harvard Medical School; the other 12,000-plus are spread out across hospitals that the dean does not control.
Dr. Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest Harvard-affiliated hospital, said Flier performed the role of convener well.
“I’m consistently impressed by what an honest broker he has been,” he said.
In an early coup, Flier convinced Slavin and other large hospital presidents to pay into Harvard Catalyst, a hub supporting clinical and translational research, education, and infrastructure for the broader Harvard community.
Slavin said Flier was able to accomplish a lot in tough financial times. “He’s going to leave the school in terrific shape for his successor.”
In other notable moves during his tenure, Flier put Dr. Paul Farmer in charge of a revamped Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, created a cross-departmental lab for systems pharmacology, and launched a department of biomedical informatics to keep up with the exploding field of big data in medicine.
Most deans are known for a single initiative, or a building they built, said Dr. Jack Rowe, a former president of Mount Sinai School of Medicine who now chairs the Board of Fellows that advises Flier. Flier made “significant accomplishments across a wide span of activities,” Rowe said. “That’s very atypical for a dean.”
This year, Flier introduced a major overhaul of the medical school curriculum, starting with first-year students. That’s one thing his successor will need to usher into full completion in coming years. Flier said the school has also just finished an outside review of its six basic science departments, which will be a major undertaking for the next dean to analyze and act upon.
Flier, a self-described “market liberal” who believes in the power of the free market and has “low regard” for the Democratic and Republican parties, has made a point of tweeting frequently and has been blogging for the Wall Street Journal. He said he has kept some opinions to himself because of his high-profile position.
When he steps down as dean, he said, “I’m going to be somewhat liberated.”
Flier’s Twitter bio says, “Dean of Harvard Medical School. Tweets are my own.”
Flier said he’s looking forward to changing the bio to: “Dean emeritus of Harvard Medical School. Tweets are really my own.”