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In the dean’s office, it takes a brain surgeon

Running the med school is a complex task, which may be why Yale tapped Dennis Spencer as interim dean.

Among the priorities demanding the attention of the new interim dean, Dennis Spencer, are faculty recruitment, fund-raising and the allocation of space.
Photo by Jerry Domian
Among the priorities demanding the attention of the new interim dean, Dennis Spencer, are faculty recruitment, fund-raising and the allocation of space.

On a Monday afternoon in late June, close to a hundred senior faculty members filled the Historical Library to witness a changing of the guard. Then-Dean David A. Kessler, M.D., was about to announce his departure for the University of California, San Francisco, where he had been named vice chancellor for medical affairs and dean of the school of medicine. Standing next to Yale President Richard C. Levin was a tall, bespectacled man in a dark suit and white beard who has a passion for cultivating water lilies and has been sighted more than once on Cedar Street astride a Harley-Davidson.

“You may be asking yourself, as I did, ‘Why Spencer?’” the new interim dean, neurosurgeon Dennis D. Spencer, M.D., HS ’77, said a few minutes later, evoking a laugh from the crowd. Looking at Levin, he went on: “He chose a surgeon, and so I thought maybe he wants quick decisions. So I’ve made two already. First I will decree that the first floor of the Air Rights Garage will be reserved for the exclusive use of motorcycles. Second, I have just decided that the third-year medical students will now be required to do a three-month rotation in neurosurgery.”

The room erupted in laughter and thus Spencer took the helm—at least for a time—of the medical school where he began his career in 1972 as a resident. The moment summed up much about the person who has led neurosurgery since 1987, building the section into a free-standing department in 1997 and serving as its chair: people notice him, they listen and they seem to enjoy the experience. “He’s the quintessential neurosurgeon and a wonderful exemplar of the physician-scientist,” said Carolyn W. Slayman, Ph.D., deputy dean for academic and scientific affairs and Sterling Professor of Genetics.

Spencer himself sees the post as an opportunity to keep the school on a steady course during a time of transition, and to move it ahead in certain critical areas pending the appointment of a permanent successor to Kessler, who came to Yale as dean in 1997.

In July, Spencer said that his initial areas of focus would be faculty recruitment, fund-raising and shepherding the allocation of laboratory and office space that becomes available as more than 700 investigators move into the Anlyan Center for Medical Research and Education. He said that Kessler’s “outstanding recruitments over the last few years” of senior faculty members have equipped the school with “an excellent complement in faculty leadership right now. … At this stage we’re focusing on mid-level positions—some senior, some junior, too, but primarily mid-level positions that have been created in the process of bringing in new department chairs.”

Spencer also noted President Levin’s announcement on June 23 of a $50 million matching endowment fund for the medical school. “This promise is very real, and it’s going to be the top thing on our agenda,” Spencer said.

A graduate of Grinnell College and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Spencer came to Yale in 1972 as a resident in the Section of Neurosurgery. He served as chief resident, then joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1977. Over the next 25 years, working with colleagues including his wife, Susan S. Spencer, M.D., FW ’78, a Yale neurologist and past president of the American Epilepsy Society, he developed new approaches to the surgical treatment of epilepsy and new models for understanding the biochemical and physiological mechanisms of the disease.

In a September e-mail message to faculty, Levin announced the formation of a 15-member advisory committee to assist him in the selection of the next dean. “The committee’s first task will be to assist me in evaluating the 41 candidates who have been identified by nominations and in my conversations with the department chairs and other leaders of the School,” he wrote. “If a wider search is undertaken, I will seek the committee’s advice on how to proceed.”

In the interview, Spencer said he had not decided “whether to think about [the deanship] as a full-time position” and is focusing his attention on the tasks before him. He has appointed Joseph M. Piepmeier, M.D., HS ’82, as the interim chair of the Department of Neurosurgery and cut back his time in the operating room and clinic.

“My role is to keep things moving forward, and if Rick Levin thought that was important and that I was the right person to try to do that, I’m happy to do it, however long it takes,” Spencer said.

Levin praised Kessler for “six years of accomplishment and real advances for the school,” notably the completion of the Anlyan Center and the recruitment of more than a dozen department chairs and program leaders. “This is a moment of sadness but also excitement as he takes on what is a tremendous new challenge,” Levin said.