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Levin leaves indelible mark on Yale medicine

Medicine@Yale, 2012 - Nov Dec


In 2004, when Yale President Richard Levin was hoping to recruit Robert J. Alpern, M.D., as the 16th dean of the School of Medicine, he told Alpern during a visit to New Haven that the medical school was excellent, but should be better, and that he was prepared to make the investment with the right person to make it as great as it should be.

Alpern had no plans to leave his position as dean of UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas, an institution where he had been on the faculty for 17 years.

But over the course of many e-mails and conversations, Alpern recalls, “Rick convinced me that working with him, I could join a school that was already great and make it even greater. He had a vision for the school and recognized that it would require substantial investment that he was willing to commit to.”

Levin, who has announced that he plans to retire from the presidency next June after a 20-year tenure, made good on that commitment, fully integrating the School of Medicine into his vision of Yale’s role in the world in the 21st century.

In his inaugural address in 1993, Levin had emphasized the importance of university-based scientific research, and throughout his tenure he has pursued a vision of preeminence in medicine and science at Yale. “Today, the scientific capability of American universities is the envy of the world,” he said in 1993. “We neglect its support at our peril.”

Levin’s unwavering commitment to medicine and science in the years since is a direct outgrowth of his often-stated goal of transforming Yale into an institution with global reach, Alpern says. “Rick understood that science and medicine,” as fields that interest and benefit people worldwide, “are a powerful form of ‘international currency’ in academia.”

In January 2000 Levin announced the greatest investment in biomedical science in the university’s 300-plus-year history. The New York Times called his dedication of $500 million to science and engineering “one of the largest one-time building plans ever” made by a university.

Less than a month later Levin said that an additional $500 million investment would go to the School of Medicine over the coming decade.

That investment funded outstanding infrastructure for modern biomedical science—new laboratories, core technology facilities, and high-tech teaching centers—that could have never have been shoehorned into the medical school’s existing facilities.

In 2003, the medical school opened the largest academic building in Yale history, the 457,000-square-foot Anlyan Center for Medical Research and Education. Alpern, who became dean in 2004, says that the facility is so crucial that “I can’t imagine what the medical school would look like if it weren’t here.”

Together with the 120,000-square-foot Amistad Street Building, which opened in 2007, the medical school increased its existing laboratory space by half.

In academic medicine, increased space drives increased quality: construction projects enacted under Levin made possible a 76 percent boost in medical school faculty, from 1,300 when he took office to 2,300 today. Collectively these faculty propelled a nearly four-fold jump in the school’s annual grant funding, from about $140 million in 1992 to about $540 million, according to the latest figures.

Levin’s strong backing for medicine and science also spurred Yale’s adoption of critical new technologies and the recruitment of accomplished and visionary scientists. In addition, many scientists who were offered positions at other schools chose to stay at Yale, appreciating the university’s commitment to them.

The school’s principal teaching hospital, Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH), also grew, especially through the 2009 opening of the 14-story Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, which united all of Yale Cancer Center’s myriad clinical services under one roof.

“It is a day of inspiration, a day that we’ve all waited for for many years,” Levin said on Smilow’s opening day. “It will allow this hospital and this medical school to take their places among the leaders in the world in the care and treatment of cancer.” Alpern credits Levin, who as Yale President serves on the hospital’s board, with fostering an excellent working relationship between the university and medical school and YNHH. “He has had a huge commitment to the hospital’s success and to the success of its relationship with the medical school,” says Alpern.

In June 2007, Levin spearheaded the purchase of the former Bayer Healthcare North American pharmaceutical headquarters in West Haven, Conn. Now known as West Campus, the purchase added 136 acres and more than 1.5 million square feet of space, including many purpose-built biomedical research labs.

Levin called on the university to make West Campus Yale’s home for innovative biomedical and clinical science programs that cross and challenge disciplinary boundaries and take risks for the chance at making revolutionary advances.

“This has transformative potential, frankly—only some of which we can envision today,” Levin said as the planning for West Campus got under way. “We’ve given our successors an opportunity to dream in ways we can’t imagine today.”

Both Alpern and Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs at the School of Medicine for most of Levin’s presidency, say that one of Levin’s greatest strengths as an administrator is that he is an “incredible listener.”

But Slayman stresses that Levin’s is not a passive form of listening, but one to which he brings the ability to take what he hears and “integrate it and fit it together. He builds a framework in his mind, so he’s not just hearing random things and remembering them–he’s putting them together in a very logical, connected way.”

By combining these skills, say Alpern and Slayman, during his tenure Levin developed extremely well-informed views on academic medicine that guided his decisions.

But most important, says Alpern, “He followed through.”

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