By HOWARD FINE
Generally acknowledged as one of the top medical research and training institutions in the nation, the medical campus at UCLA is about to be completely rebuilt and retooled to take it into the 21st century.
Some $600 million, half of the entire university’s current capital campaign, is being raised for this undertaking, which is expected to hit full stride in the next decade.
The man at the center is Dr. Gerald S. Levey. As dean of the UCLA School of Medicine and provost of the Medical Sciences Department, Levey oversees a medical school, a dental school, eight research units and three hospitals UCLA Medical Center, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Hospital and Santa Monica Medical Center.
In the field of academic medicine, Levey’s post is considered among the most prestigious in the country.
Levey, 61, is no stranger to running medical schools. During the 1980s, he was at the helm of the Department of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, where he steered the department through a major expansion.
Then he took an abrupt turn by accepting a post as senior vice president of pharmaceutical giant Merck Inc. in the early 1990s.
After three years on the business side of medicine, he was recruited by then-UCLA Chancellor Charles Young in 1994.
A native of Jersey City, N.J., Levey has spent most of his career in academic medicine.
Question: After spending virtually your entire life in the East, what drew you to UCLA?
Answer: The reputation of the university. In my field of academic medicine, there are only three or four jobs as prestigious as this one in the entire nation. I knew that, if I was offered the job, I would take it. This was exactly the type of position that I’d always wanted to have. It has oversight over the medical school, hospitals, research facilities.
There were lots of problems with the medical program that the administration wanted solved. I like a challenge and am not afraid to make changes.
Q: What sort of problems were there?
A: There was a disconnect between the leadership of the school of medicine and the medical center. They were not headed necessarily in the right direction and were not working together.
There was also a long-standing leadership gap. The previous dean had left two and a half years earlier. The hospital was not in a good financial position; it had gone through some very difficult years.
Also a whole host of recruits and new programs needed to be developed.
Q: So what have you done to address those problems?
A: The first thing I did was to put forward a vision for our academic health center. I made it clear we would have a different management structure. I wanted people to set their goals and then the management would hold them to those goals.
I also laid plans to strengthen several programs. For example, neuroscience needed to be unified and strengthened. Also, the cancer center was having some difficulty because of the lack of what we call “translational research” taking the science in the laboratory and applying it to patients.
Q: How’s the $600 million fund-raising campaign going?
A: We are now in the third year of the six-year campaign and we have raised about $300 million for the medical school. However, we have needs that far transcend $600 million.
The construction of the UCLA Medical Center will cost $150 million, part of which will come out of the $600 million. We need two new research buildings to replace seismically damaged buildings at the medical school. That will cost us $70 million. We need to construct a new medical school building that will cost us $100 million. We need new cancer program facilities, which may take another $40 million to $50 million. And we need between one and two more combination office/ambulatory care buildings.
Q: Isn’t that an overly ambitious goal to accomplish in three years?
A: I’m not talking necessarily about doing all this in the next three years. I’m thinking in broad terms: How do I get UCLA positioned for the 21st century no later than the end of the first decade of that century. This academic health center must be totally rebuilt by the time 2010 rolls around if we are to be a world-class player.
The hospital of the next century has to be efficient; unlike most hospitals, it must be able to handle patients who will be more intensely ill than most people in hospitals today.
We need to have modern research facilities. Most of the facilities here were built in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re spending a fortune rebuilding them to perform the science of the 21st century.
The teaching of medical students is going to be vastly different. They will need to grapple with the new world of managed care, among other things.
Q: Your fund-raising team includes some of the most powerful people in town, including Michael Ovitz, (who last year donated $25 million). What was it like meeting Mr. Ovitz for the first time?
A: In a way, he was sort of interviewing me, trying to size up my enthusiasm and vision for the medical school. As a UCLA graduate, he had already made the school of medicine a top priority a decade before I arrived. But he was becoming concerned with the future of the medical school.
From the very first, we liked each other. We shared the same enthusiasm for the vision and the medical campus at UCLA.
When he agreed to chair our oversight board, we put in place a starting point for us to raise a great deal of money. Together with Mr. Ovitz, Louis Gonda and Ronald Burkle we have the leadership in place to reach out to the diverse elements of this community to buy into the vision.
Q: What is the message, specifically, that you’re putting out to raise the remaining $300 million.
A: I’m not sure everybody here recognizes it, but to the world outside Los Angeles, UCLA’s academic health center is generally considered to be among the top five. You’ve got the Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard University complex, Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, Duke, and UCLA.
My job here is to carry this message to people who will buy into the very special role that we play in American indeed world medicine.
Q: What prompted you to devote your career to academic medicine?
A: The reason I got into medicine was my childhood pediatrician. I saw what he did and how he could make people better. By the time I was 5, I had already decided that I wanted to be a doctor.
In my junior year at graduate school, I caught the teaching bug. I realized I loved to teach those around me. It was a joy to communicate what I knew to others. I also loved doing research. That’s when I decided to go into academic medicine. It combined treating patients, teaching and research, which were the three things I enjoyed doing the most.
Q: So why, after an entire career devoted to academic medicine, did you accept a position with Merck?
A: After I had been dean at the school of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh for about 10 years, I hit a point in my career where I wanted to move on. However, the deanships and presidencies that were offered were not to my liking. I spoke to my mentor at Pittsburgh, a Dr. Thomas Detre. I told him I was looking for a job where I could direct the future of an entire academic health center. He told me that I would never be able to do this unless I took some position beyond what I was doing.
In my three years at Merck, I learned more about running an organization, setting goals, getting from point A to point B and having both high standards and efficiency in management than I had ever really grasped in academia.
The experience was like a three-year sabbatical at a business school, only better. As I reflect back now, I realize that if I hadn’t taken that job at Merck, I could not have done this job here. I also don’t think I would have been offered the position I have here.