Reflections from the Dean: Gratitude

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Dr. schwenk speaking at the podium


This is my last Dean's Reflections, and therefore one of my last opportunities to thank you — all of you — for all that you have contributed to the success of the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, and the ways I have felt supported by you in my decade as dean.

Medical schools are at one and the same time complex, enduring and fragile. The success in achieving our missions is critical to the health and quality of life of our community and our state. Our scientific achievements have global impact. Our clinical expertise enhances the health and wellness of thousands of patients and our educational programs have trained thousands of physicians and health care professionals. Medical schools generally enjoy the support of their communities, both tangible and intangible, because their work is so important.

Yet medical schools are also subject to extraordinary demands, resource volatility, disruptive changes in health care delivery and training, accreditation cycles that seem perpetual, escalating costs of maintaining scientific competitiveness, and the constant need for new sources of support. Despite these challenges, medical schools are expected to perform at a consistently high level because what we do is so fundamental to the quality of life of our communities. Medical schools thrive on the contributions of some of the most expert and dedicated faculty and staff members found in higher education. We enjoy the privilege of teaching and training the "best of the best" learners — our students, residents, fellows and trainees. The integrity, dedication, commitment to excellence, innovation, and mission-focused intensity of medical schools cause them to be among the most precious of human institutions.

For all those reasons, I thank you for contributing so much to this noble institution.

And for all of those reasons, serving as dean of any medical school is one of the great honors and privileges of a professional career. Serving as dean of UNR Med has certainly been my honor and privilege. The last 10 years have required every shred of experience, every ounce of energy and every bit of wisdom I could mobilize to contribute to the solution of so many challenges, and take advantage of so many opportunities. Serving as dean is the capstone of my 46-year career. I feel like everything I have ever learned was meant to prepare me for this role. I enjoyed the satisfaction of being challenged to the very limits of my abilities, and knowing that I "left it all on the field."

This job, like most leadership positions, never stops. There is never a time when all issues have been solved, all crises managed, all opportunities taken. The desk is never clean. I am always thinking about a budget problem, a personnel matter, a critical recruitment, an accreditation deficiency, a political conflict, a regulatory requirement or legal issue — and sometimes all of them at the same time. I have been truly out of touch and off emails and text messages for only five days of the past 10 years — during a cruise around the Cape Horn in Patagonia! (Dr. Piasecki has reminded me from time to time of the crisis that occurred during those five days, requiring my input as soon as I checked back in.)

The job also involves a lot of politics. I am often asked how I cope with the inevitable frustrations of a political life. The answer is that managing the politics of a medical school — whether dealing with the University, the Board of Regents, or the state legislature — is worthwhile if it helps you to do more of what you need to do and want to do, and to do it better.

The reason the role is so all-consuming, at least the reason it is for me, is that I have tried to be a servant leader. My job is to make your roles and responsibilities more easily managed, and your work more successful and more productive. Your success is my success, and the source of my greatest satisfaction.

There are dozens of books about leadership and an equal number of leadership metaphors. Most come from the military and sports, neither of which quite work for me. A more favorite metaphor is that of the orchestra and the role of the conductor. Each of you is the expert in your particular "instrument." While I will not be as good as any of you at playing your particular part, I can bring us together on the same beat, choose the music we will play together, start and end at the same time, and (hopefully) leave the audience breathless and applauding.

One of the downsides of this job is the inevitable regret that I feel — all the ways I was not as good as I should have been, not as wise as I needed to be, not as successful in responding to all the many challenges and opportunities as I wished I had been. Taking on a leadership role like this comes with the opportunity to do so much good, and the need to accept the inevitable times when I fell short. However good I hope I was, I was never as good as I wished I was, or as good as you wanted me to be.

I have mentored many leaders over the years, including faculty members who wanted to be department chairs and senior leaders who wanted to be deans. One thing I always tell them is to accept their inevitable shortcomings because they are so easily seen. I also tell them that there is a certain (hopefully small) amount of arrogance and hubris in taking on a leadership role. We are willing to take on enormous responsibilities because we think we have some ideas for the direction that an office, a department, a clinic, or a medical school should take, and we want to convince others to follow us. The best leaders are inclusive and collaborative and take feedback and guidance from all members of the team, but at some point "the buck stops with the leader," and a decision has to be made. It is good to remember that from time to time, and to behave with appropriate humility.

Finally, this job comes with overwhelming personal exposure. One of the phrases I will most remember is: "Could the Dean attend and say a few words?" I am always "on." I knew that intellectually when I accepted the offer, but had no idea what it meant emotionally. There is rarely a day when I am not in front of a group, a camera, a microphone or on the phone with constituents or stakeholders.

You have been subjected to hours and years of my words, including hundreds of speeches, meeting comments and off-handed remarks. I thank you for your tolerance of all that exposure. You may be surprised to learn that my Meyers-Briggs inventory scores me as an overwhelming introvert. I have learned many extroverted behaviors, because that's what a career in academic medicine requires, but they come at a cost. Although it was not my natural style, it was always an honor to pick up a pen (or tap on a keyboard) or step up to a podium to represent and celebrate the accomplishments of all of you and of the school, and of our success in achieving our critical missions.

Leading a medical school is a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Each of you and each challenge are a puzzle piece, each special and different, with a unique place in the big picture. The difference, of course, is that there is no box cover with a picture to guide us. The picture develops piece by piece as we find the best ways to play to our strengths, minimize our weaknesses, and create something never before seen. It has been my greatest honor and greatest satisfaction to have the responsibility of looking at the puzzle from every angle — to use every piece in the best possible way to make the best possible picture.

And that brings me back to my overwhelming gratitude to you. Thank you for all that you are, all that you do, and for the great honor of saying that I have worked with you for the past 10 years. UNR Med's future is bright because of you. You will solve the puzzles ahead with strength, innovation, integrity, trust and respect. I look forward to seeing how those pieces — and all of you — will continue to come together in service of a healthy Nevada.

Media Contacts

Julie Ardito, APR
Senior Director, Advancement and Engagement
Office: (775) 784-6006

Tessa Bowen, MPA
Communications Manager, Advancement and Engagement
Office: (775) 682-9254

The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Monday August 23, 2021 @ 4:00 PM