Her brand may not be crisis, but the new head of the University of Arizona’s two medical schools is developing a track record for taking the helm during turmoil.
Dr. Leigh Neumayer became interim vice president of health sciences — one of the university’s most powerful and high-profile positions — on Jan. 1.
The job includes overseeing both of the UA’s medical schools, as well as the separate colleges of Pharmacy, Nursing and Public Health. The total health sciences budget is $595 million per year.
She replaced Dr. Joe G. N. “Skip” Garcia, who stepped down after public scrutiny about his governance. Last June, the Arizona Medical Association urged an inquiry into the executive leadership of the UA medical schools. The Arizona Board of Regents then hired a law firm to review the medical schools’ governance. The review was never released to the public, and the board said no further inquiry was needed.
Garcia remains at the UA as an endowed professor and will continue to receive his $870,000 per year salary for two years. Neumayer is also earning $870,000 as long as she holds the interim post.
A breast cancer researcher and surgeon, Neumayer came to the UA in a leadership role in 2014, taking over as head of the surgery department. Former surgery department head and renowned transplant surgeon Dr. Rainer Gruessner was in a legal fight with the university to get his job back. Morale was low in the department, where many surgeons were recruited by Gruessner, and the transplant program was faltering.
Neumayer is credited with smoothing the waters — effectively rebuilding the department and restoring critical transplant services.
Among the tasks on her mind now is overseeing the largest peer-reviewed National Institutes of Health grant in UA history.
The Star sat down recently with Neumayer. Here are excerpts from the interview:
The UA will soon have a new president, Dr. Robert C. “Bobby” Robbins, former CEO of Texas Medical Center. Will having a physician as president be a boost to health sciences?
In any leader I actually think it’s not the letters behind their name, but the skill set that they bring.
Full disclosure: I was a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, which is in the Texas Medical Center — 30 some years ago.
Texas Medical Center is about a 1-square-mile piece of land that has two medical schools, about seven nursing schools, every other ancillary type of school. It’s got MD Anderson, Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR Memorial Hermann), which people in Tucson will know because it’s where Gabby Giffords went. There’s St. Luke’s; Baylor just built their own hospital. It’s just this most amazing place.
(Robbins’) vision for that place was quite phenomenal — bring all these big entities together. Frankly, all those hospitals are in direct competition with each other — for patients, for doctors, things like that. Bobby was able to present a compelling vision of what they could become beyond what they already were. To me, that’s what the UA will benefit from, that skill set.
You are the interim health sciences vice president — is that expected to be a permanent position and would you want it to be?
It is up to Dr. Robbins. My standard response is, if offered I would certainly consider it.
Do you think the criticism of Dr. Garcia was misplaced?
I think Dr. Garcia, the impact of what he was able to do for this institution — it will be like some of our U.S. presidents, where their impact isn’t known until years after they left. He was a disruptive force in a positive sense. And recruited a lot of great people here. I happened to be one of those recruits. But he really took us to a different level and did what he thought he needed to do to get us there. Without that, we would maybe not be where we are today.
The UA got a sizable Precision Medicine grant from the NIH — $43.3 million over five years. What is happening with that? (The initiative aims to identify new ways to treat and prevent disease by taking into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments and lifestyles.)
We got that in large part because of our partnership with Banner (and) their access through all their different sites to patients, and potential subjects.
I believe it will involve getting blood drawn, maybe spit, too. You can do genomics on it — look at different gene expression profiles. In general we’ll have the patient clinical data. We’ll look at different markers in the blood. We’ll be able to correlate those. It is in many ways using big data, but I want to be clear that this wasn’t about taking data that’s already in the system without patients knowing about it.
I think we’re supposed to enroll 100,000 or 150,000 in Arizona. The subjects will be signing consent forms.
What are your prime concerns at the UA moving forward?
You have to understand, I am an eternal optimist. So I see any problem as a true opportunity to fix it, build it, change it. So we still have lots of opportunities with Banner. (The UA has an academic affiliation with Phoenix-based not-for-profit Banner Health, which also owns Tucson’s only academic medical center, Banner-University Medical Center Tucson.)
What we’re going to be able to do here will be a template for the entire country. That’s our hope at least. Most of the leadership gets asked frequently about it as they are out nationally, as all of us are.
Is there another model nationally like the UA-Banner one?
Not a successful one. We have that opportunity.
What is the status of UA’s Phoenix medical school’s accreditation process? (The school opened in 2007).
There is a process you have to go through in order to get full accreditation from the LCME (Liaison Committee on Medical Education). We received the report and there were no surprises in it. We have assurances that we will be on the LCME’s June agenda.
There are four possible outcomes. Number 1 is they’ll push us to full accreditation with no citations. We’d find out in late summer. Do you know how many times any medical school has got full accreditation with zero citations? Never that I know of. I don’t think we’re going to get that outcome.
On the other end they could take us back down to preliminary status and make us stop admitting students, which I also think is not happening. That would be highly unlikely.
The one we’re cautiously optimistic we’ll get is move to full accreditation with a few areas that are minor non-compliance or are in need or monitoring.
The UA College of Medicine Tucson has a larger class size than the Phoenix medical school. Any plans to change that?
That is something we’d have to talk to the Legislature and the LCME about. Phoenix will definitely always be a different medical school than Tucson. I see that as a plus. The College of Medicine Tucson has always had an emphasis on underserved populations that we won’t ever lose. We have great opportunities in Phoenix for translational and clinical research, largely because of the larger population and some potential building of infrastructure in the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.
We have a much bigger basic science infrastructure in Tucson. Our world-renowned programs in environment and optics and things like that here in Tucson help us recruit certain people whereas in Phoenix there’s an ability to collaborate for population science.
Another thing I have pushed out is that we should have an Arizona (medical) deans committee. (The Mayo Clinic is opening a medical school in Scottsdale this summer.) In addition to Mayo, Creighton University sends third and fourth year medical students to St. Joe’s (in Phoenix) and there are the osteopathic schools too, Midwestern and A.T.
We all ought to be working together. It’s good to have a little bit of competition but the more we can work together to serve the needs of the state, the better off we’ll all be.
Do you see yourself as someone who steps into leadership roles amid controversy?
I hadn’t really thought of myself in that role. I think I do have a skill set of building relationships and building trust. And maybe that comes from my years of being a doctor. You have to gain trust, especially in breast cancer or the trauma bay.