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By most accounts, David Kessler's four years as UCSF's medical school dean were a rip-roaring success. So why was he fired?

Wednesday, Apr 9 2008

In a cafe near his Pacific Heights home, David Kessler — who weighs maybe 160 pounds soaking wet — is expounding in a scholarly fashion on the causes of obesity, the subject of the book he is writing, while he waits for the omelet and Diet Coke he has ordered for breakfast.

But within minutes, it is apparent that the recently fired former dean of the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco has something else on his mind.

"What troubles me is how the university can continue to say that [their financial books] were accurate when they weren't," he says. "Why do they insist on that?"

The rhetorical question punctuates a long and earnest explanation of the spreadsheets and other papers he has brought with him and stacked neatly on the table. Kessler, the esteemed former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under two presidents, who earned his chops as the man who took on Big Tobacco, is plainly unafraid to punch back when he feels his integrity has been impugned.

And he's feeling it, big time.

UCSF landed a big fish when it hired Kessler as vice chancellor and dean of the highly regarded medical school in the summer of 2003. With its ambitious plans for a new Mission Bay campus taking shape alongside San Francisco's emerging role as a hub for stem-cell research, the university hardly could have chosen a more high-profile — and, many say, capable — dean. The university lured him from Yale, where he had spent six years as dean of its school of medicine after a triumphant seven-year run at the FDA.

But if it seemed like the perfect marriage, it ended bitterly. To the shock and dismay of many of his colleagues, Kessler was unceremoniously dumped in December by UCSF chancellor and Nobel laureate J. Michael Bishop after Kessler had spent nearly three years complaining behind the scenes about alleged financial malfeasance at the institution he was hired to lead.

At its root, the breakup stemmed from a dispute about the level of resources Kessler says UCSF promised to the dean's office as an inducement for his taking the job — money he and his supporters say is vital to keeping the medical school ranked among the nation's best. But Kessler's complaints involve more than allegedly unfulfilled promises. He contends that after he arrived in San Francisco, he discovered that the financial books of the dean's office were a mess, and that it was on a trajectory to run out of money within several years.

UCSF officials dispute that, saying that the materials provided to Kessler before he took the job were merely "pro forma" documents for internal planning purposes. They insist that the medical school's finances remain solid.

Bishop, the renowned immunologist who has been UCSF's chancellor for 10 years, and who pulled the plug on Kessler, has said little about the matter publicly. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but designated two other high-ranking university officials to address the issue on his behalf.

"The chancellor has taken Dr. Kessler's allegations very seriously," executive vice chancellor Eugene Washington says. "We've had three analyses and exhaustive reviews that come to the conclusion that the school of medicine is in strong financial condition ... and we find no evidence to substantiate [Kessler's] allegations."

But nearly four months after Kessler's dramatic ouster, there are still more questions than answers about why he was fired (he insists he has never been told). And, in some quarters, at least, there is mounting suspicion that in firing him in such a manner, the university may have left itself open to accusations of retaliating against a whistleblower.

In public pronouncements, neither Bishop nor Sam Hawgood, who replaced Kessler as interim dean, have suggested — even remotely — that the deposed dean was remiss in his stewardship of the medical school.

On the contrary, Bishop's state-of-the-university message to the UCSF community in January praised several new research initiatives and other milestones in which the ousted dean played a key role. And just two weeks after Kessler's departure, Hawgood described the state of the medical school in glowing terms while assuring faculty and staff that "the outstanding programs" begun under Kessler "will continue with my full support."

Indeed, Kessler appeared to enjoy a remarkable four-year run. In 2007, as in earlier years of his tenure, the medical school — already considered among the nation's elite — inched up in several categories in U.S. News & World Report's annual survey. It was one of only two schools in the country ranked in the top 10 for quality of training in both research and primary care; seven of its eight specialty programs scored in the top 10 of their respective fields.

Kessler earned praise for the quality and diversity of the nine department chairs and other faculty he recruited. Under his tutelage, the school ranked first in the nation among public schools of medicine in funds received from the National Institutes of Health. Individual endowments also approached an all-time high on his watch. He was credited for landing huge donations from several first-time donors to UCSF. Among them, sources say, was a $25 million gift, yet to be announced, from Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad for stem-cell research.

Not surprisingly, Kessler's dismissal stunned the UCSF community. The day the news got out, physician and medical school professor Bob Wachter, who blogs about university affairs, summed up the mood: "Today the great mecca of medical care and innovation that is UCSF all but ground to a halt."

The manner in which Kessler was let go also caught many of his colleagues by surprise. In academia, deposed executives are typically accorded genteel treatment, not uncommonly finding new jobs elsewhere while leaving behind little public hint of dissatisfaction. In Kessler's case, things were different. "The university applied every sort of humiliation technique you would normally associate with a corporate firing," says one faculty member, who, like several others who were asked to comment for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was really kind of shocking."

About The Author

Ron Russell


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