Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, informed the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) community in December that he will not seek to serve a fourth five-year term as dean when his current term expires later this year. Alpern said he will remain as dean until his successor is appointed, and then plans to continue on the Yale faculty and pursue a number of academic interests.
Alpern, who arrived in 2004 after serving since 1998 as dean of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, calls the change “bittersweet” after 21 years as a dean. “I will especially miss the many colleagues I have worked with so closely over these years.” But, he says, he is looking forward to what will come next. “I’m really excited about going back to my pre-dean years and being able to focus on the latest advances in medicine and the biomedical sciences. Right now, my time is entirely consumed with responsibilities associated with the dean’s job.”
After he steps down, Alpern expects to devote more time addressing his varied academic interests, some of which are related to renal physiology and kidney disease. He wants to focus more on the development of a drug that has the potential to transform the care of kidney patients. He also hopes to pursue other areas of interest related to biomedical science, clinical medicine, teaching, and issues of national and international importance in medicine.
First, there is a deanship to complete. Alpern looks back with satisfaction at achievements that include recruiting outstanding researchers—scientists at the top of their fields—along with young investigators whose accomplishments and personal development have been a source of particular pride; a much-enhanced relationship with Yale New Haven Health System (YNHHS) and a clinical practice that he says has been transformed; a curriculum revision in 2015 (for which he credits Richard Belitsky, MD, Harold W. Jockers Associate Professor of Medical Education and associate professor of psychiatry, and deputy dean for education) as well as the YSM Teaching and Learning Center; enhanced financial aid for students; and huge strides by a cancer center that was in danger of losing its National Cancer Institute funding when he arrived but now does stellar research and provides unsurpassed clinical care at Smilow Cancer Hospital, which Yale New Haven Hospital opened in 2009.
Alpern also points to a school that ran annual deficits when he arrived, but where surpluses are now the norm. “It’s those surpluses,” he says, “that have allowed us to recruit top faculty, build the school’s new research and education programs, and attain so many other important goals.”
In the time that remains before the search for a new dean concludes and his successor takes office, there are several things Alpern still wants to accomplish. One is bringing the school and YNHHS even closer. “I think we have developed a great relationship,” he says, “but we still function as two organizations.” He wants to come closer to operating “virtually as one.”
Another priority is continuing to work on issues related to climate at the school, which range from physician burnout, to faculty engagement, to creating an environment free of all forms of bullying, harassment, and racial and gender disparities, as well as broader issues of inclusion. “It’s probably going to take some time to address these issues,” he says. “But I will continue to focus on them as long as I am the dean and hope to accomplish as much as I can.”
Alpern says his time at the helm of the School of Medicine has been incredibly rewarding and credits a team effort by YSM deans, chairs, faculty, students, and staff alike for making it so. “It’s a wonderful place,” he says, “because you are continually surrounded by the best.”
The same atmosphere of cooperation and excellence that is so characteristic of Yale will greet his successor, Alpern predicts, paving the way for even greater achievements ahead.