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Staying power

Longtime health sciences leader Frank Cerra, M.D., reflects on his 30-year career at the U

No one told senior vice president for health sciences and Medical School dean Frank Cerra, M.D., that the average tenure for a medical school leader in this country is only three and a half years. But then there’s been nothing average about Cerra since the day in 1981 when he arrived at the University of Minnesota as a tenured faculty member in the Department of Surgery.

He first served as Medical School dean in 1995, when then-University President Nils Hasselmo appointed him to the role in the midst of a tumultuous period for the health sciences. Those 15 years of administrative service end with the calendar year, as Cerra reaches 30 years of experience on campus. His plan: to return to his academic home in the Department of Surgery. Following are his reflections on what has changed—and remained the same—for the University’s health sciences and Medical School.

Medical Bulletin : What drew you to the Medical School’s Department of Surgery?

Throughout his tenure as senior vice president for health sciences, Cerra participated in several groundbreaking events, including those for the McGuire Translational Research Facility and the Winston and Maxine Wallin Medical Biosciences Building.

Frank Cerra : The University recruited me for two reasons: One, I was one of the original surgical “intensivists”; and, two, I was conducting groundbreaking research on the metabolism of injury from trauma—bullets, knives, big surgery—those kinds of things. My research resulted in a lot important work on metabolism and the role of nutrients in response to injury—and it led to a number of publications and patents.

The University was a great place to be. It was innovative. It was creative. I had residents in the laboratory for two to three years, and I always had postdocs. I was able to start one of the first surgical critical care residencies in the country. It populated many surgical ICUs around the country. That was in 1986-87.

MB: How did you move from research into administration?

FC: As I worked in the ICU, I was asked to do more and more management. For example, putting in an electronic medical record became my project. Here’s just a simple thing: Between the time a doctor ordered a blood test and it got back to the patient’s bedside, 15 people handled the blood sample, and it was recorded on one of about 15 sheets of paper at the bedside. Well, it’s hard enough to take care of a patient without putting up with that, so I helped to automate the ICU. Then I become involved in setting up what is now LifeLink III, the medical helicopter system.

Cerra, shown here in 1988, conducted laboratory research on nutrition and intensive care. (Photo: University Archives)

Eventually, the dean of the Medical School, Shelley Chou, asked me to become chair of surgery. I started in October 1994. The next May, after Dr. Chou left the University, I became dean of the Medical School.

In 1996, when Bill Brody left the University, I was asked to take on his role as provost of the Academic Health Center. It was a very tumultuous time. The Medical School was facing a big deficit; the hospital was facing a big deficit; we were looking at selling the hospital. People were leaving right and left—mostly clinical faculty in the Medical School. When Nils Hasselmo called me to offer the position, I thought about it awhile, and said, “Yep, I think I’d like to take a hand at that.” I thought, “This is a critical patient, and I’m a critical care doc. This might be an opportunity to do something really good for the future of providers.”

MB: How have students changed since you first arrived on campus?

University medical historian Jennifer Gunn, Ph.D., and Cerra examine the contents of a time capsule that was embedded in Jackson Hall in 1911.

FC: Student populations are very different. When I first started out in this business, it was more of, “What’s in it for me?” That was the consideration. The students were smart, yes, but we didn’t see the same set of professional values we see today. At that time, you didn’t talk about values in health professional education—with the exception of nursing. Nursing has always done that.

Today’s students are committed to health in a very different way—and once they commit, they really do. The difference is they’re not interested in 80-hour work weeks. They want their time off. They want to develop their families. Way back when, that’s not what you did.

MB: What about the average faculty? How are they different today?

FC: It’s tough to talk about the average faculty, but I’ll give it a try. The average faculty member then was interested in his or her RO1 [NIH] grant. How is my career going to progress, am I going to get tenure? I’m willing to teach, but I really just want to give my lecture and move on. I’m not really interested in student mentorship; my role is in the research lab. I’ll go to the clinic when I’m able to, but not necessarily when I’m supposed to.

Cerra, with a group on campus in 2004, says the key to the Academic Health Center's vitality is being responsive to the communities it serves.

Of course, I’m over-exaggerating to make a point. But there’s been almost a 180-degree turn. When you talk to faculty members today, they’re much more committed to clinical practice and to teaching in the clinical setting. And for that matter, basic scientists’ commitment to teaching is very different; their grant portfolios are much more interdisciplinary now.

As we’ve all come to realize, you can’t possibly know everything there is to know in one area. You need to collaborate with people from other schools and other disciplines.

MB: What one piece of advice do you have for your successor?

FC: Never quit thinking big. Vision is what drives progress, in my opinion. That must be a critical component of the new leadership. The ability to create and capture a vision, incorporate other people’s visions into it, create followers, and what’s more important, make it happen. It’s all about leadership and interpersonal relationships and making sure that what you’re doing is to satisfy the faculty’s needs and not your own.

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