Chancellor-Elect Susan Desmond-Hellmann Greets Campus Community

Speech by Chancellor-Elect Susan Desmond-Hellmann
UCSF Parnassus Campus, Cole Hall
May 8, 2009

Citing its "deep commitment to human health" as a reason for coming to UCSF, Chancellor-elect Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, greeted the campus community on May 8, one day after being approved for the post by UC Regents.

Desmond-Hellmann recounted her early days as a resident at UCSF and explained what her top priorities will be as the first woman to lead the top-rated health sciences university.

Here is her full speech:

Thank you, Regent Blum, President Yudof and Chancellor Bishop.

Twenty-seven years ago, thanks to Holly Smith and his intern selection committee, I moved to San Francisco from my mom and dad’s house in Reno, Nevada. If you’re doing the math, that means I was 24 and I hadn’t left home yet. So I am a late bloomer. Over on Lake Street in the Richmond District, I had found a room for myself to room with two law students.

And my dad and my uncle Tom. My dad grew up on 18th Avenue down the street and my uncle Tom, who still lives on 7th Avenue, helped me move my one possession, which was a heavy rolltop desk, up two flights of stairs to my new room on Lake Street.

And the next day, I brought Grandma Desmond, who still lived on 18th Avenue and was 81 at the time, over to see my new digs because I was pretty proud, having left home. And Grandma pointed to the house across the street and she said, “You might not have known this, Sue, but right across the street from your new room is where I was upstairs maid when I came from Ireland to San Francisco.”

So last week when I, of course, told my dad the news about UCSF, he said, “I wish Grandma and Grandpa were alive to see their granddaughter come back to UCSF.”

You have to forgive me for being a little bit sentimental about today. It means a lot to me to come back to a place that’s not just changed my life – for Holly and his friends to bring me from Reno – but where my dad’s family came from Ireland and where he grew up. So I am really happy and excited to be back.

I know we’re pressed for time and President Yudof needs to get over to Davis. I had about two hours’ worth of things to say, so I want to talk about three things: Why I came to UCSF again; what you can expect from me; and diversity. Because I have to pick only three things, given 10 minutes.

So why did I come to UCSF? Even though I was trained at UCSF, when I thought about what I wanted to do next after Genentech, I had lots of choices.

And I am a mentor to a lot of people. I really like coaching, mentoring and managing; it’s one of my favorite things. And the pearl of wisdom I give colleagues is “Do your homework.” Never go someplace where you don’t feel there’s absolute excellence and integrity and passion for the same things you are passionate about.

And so when I thought about coming back to UCSF, I thought about many of the settings I have found myself in, in the last couple of years, where people like Cynthia Kenyon, Liz Blackburn and Joe DeRisi – and I can go on, but I won’t.

The excellence here at UCSF is the same excellence that led me to San Francisco when I first got here in 1982. Everybody was the smartest kid in their class. That’s what it feels like to be here, and that’s why I am excited to be at UCSF.

But it’s more than research and scientific excellence. When I speak to friends, they tell me about their own experience of coming to UCSF when they have been ill or a family member has been ill, and the kind of care they receive at UCSF. And so I know that coming to UCSF means that I am going to be associated with excellence and a deep commitment to human health. And that for me is why I want to be here.

So it’s that combination of intelligence and passion and care for patients and health care that brought me back here.

So what can you expect from me? It is embarrassing to me to read all these news stories and my biography. I want to share with you two things that were my favorite sayings at Genentech over the last 14 years.

I don’t like to have slogans come from consultants because they don’t have a lot of meaning for me. But two things that I guess I said and have been attributed to me at Genentech.

The first is the rally cry at Genentech, which does product development and makes new medicines for patients, and the rally cry is “Imagine what’s possible for patients.” And I like “Imagine what’s possible for patients” because, as all of you know, it’s really hard work to do something special for patients. It’s really hard work to be up until the middle of the night or to be pushing on your research or writing a grant or doing what we all do.

And I always find when times are difficult or you’re feeling a bit like you are overwhelmed with what you’re signed up for to help patients, that if I sit down and think, well, “Imagine what all this hard work will translate to for patients,” then I think that’s a good rally cry. It makes me feel like okay, this will pass, this hard work, but the deeper meaning and what it means for patients has always resonated for me.

And my other favorite saying is “Every employee deserves a great manager.” Now you might say, “Okay, Sue, you have been in the business world; this management stuff is fine for a company. But we’re an academic institution.” I still think, though, that everybody deserves a good manager. Everybody needs to know what is expected of them, what their future looks like, how they can improve, what this all means for them personally.

And so I want you to know that the reason I am an administrator and the reason I am so looking forward to being chancellor here is that I define my success by the success of others. And so I will do my best to represent you, and to keep that passion for patients and that commitment to every individual.

Top two priorities, and President Yudof is right – he didn’t quite give me the whole spectrum of challenges. I think that was really smart.

And I am sitting down with Mike today to review the leadership changes at this campus. Within the Chancellor’s Office, there’s a lot of words called retiring, retired, acting and interim. And my commitment to you is before the end of the year, you will see a lot fewer of those terms. Because nobody by themselves makes changes. So I am committing to you to have a great top team, and that’s going to be priority one.

The other thing is to keep the quality and the wonderful UCSF during a difficult time in a difficult economy. I know about fiscal challenges, having sat at the UC Regents meeting yesterday. I know what that means for students and what that means for the University. And so you have my commitment that I will dig as deep as possible and manage through a time that has to get better – but a very difficult time, and that’s a huge priority.

You can expect me to pay a lot of attention to people and to the fiscal health of UCSF as two of my most important commitments.

So: diversity. You’ve noticed I am a woman. I will confess that when I was first at Genentech, one of my colleagues, who is a PhD scientist, and I were asked to be on one of those dreaded panels about women in science. And I say “dreaded” because Paula and I were like, “Oh, no, we’ll be known as the women vice presidents at Genentech, and they’ll be like, ‘The women are having their forum’ and all this.” And we did a certain amount of eyeball rolling. And I had a little bit of the Charles Barkley sentiment about being a role model. But I’ll tell you I’ve evolved, happily.

I want to give Chancellor Bishop a lot of credit for focusing on diversity at UCSF. I’ve been on the website, and I’ve checked out what’s available and the commitment UCSF has to diversity.

So I’ll tell you, here’s how I feel about being the first woman chancellor. If there’s one person at UCSF who comes from a unique background or is a potential candidate for something and they say, “Boy, that’s not possible for me.” If there is one person for whom this appointment makes them more hopeful about their prospects and their future at UCSF, then I’ll sign up to be a role model. I am happy to do that. Because I hope that what my appointment says to people – if you will forgive – in a very apolitical way, is “Yes, we can.”

And you have my commitment that I will continue the investment in and commitment to diversity that Chancellor Bishop has started here.

I am a person who likes quotes, and so I struggled. I thought, “I only have 10 minutes; I will probably have time for one good quote.” And I went through a few that I liked and that are some of my favorites, but I focused in on one. It’s from Thomas Edison. And it is really my favorite quote: “If we all did the things that we are capable of, we will literally astound ourselves.”

I like that quote a lot because I’ve always felt amazed by what human beings are capable of, and I know how challenging things are for UCSF right now. I don’t come in naïve. I am an optimist, but I know how challenging things are.

And so if, in my tenure as chancellor, what I can make happen here makes it possible for people in this room and who are tuning in to this, if it makes people think that they can do all they’re capable of and makes an environment that brings out the best in people, then I will feel good about that. Then I do think that the people here will astound everyone and amaze everyone with what you are all capable of.

So let me end by also adding my congratulations and thanks as a friend and fan of UCSF to Mike Bishop for his 11 years’ tenure as chancellor.

He got me a little nervous last night, talking about the inability to read books and see movies. So I am hopeful that he meant that figuratively and not literally, because I am a big reader and hope I will still find time for reading and maybe once in a while a movie.

But seriously, Mike, what you’ve done for UCSF and you taking that amount of time and energy for UCSF, I just want to add my thanks and gratitude to that of everyone else for what you have done for UCSF. So thank you for that.

It is a little bit like a bat mitzvah and a wedding, all in one, today. I have many, many friends at UCSF, and for those who I haven’t met yet, I am looking forward to being your friend. I am really honored and humbled at the opportunity to be your next chancellor. So thank you very much.

Related Links

For New Chancellor, Return to UCSF Is a Homecoming
UCSF Today, May 8, 2009

Campus Community Welcomes New Chancellor During Era of Change
UCSF Today, May 7, 2008

Susan Desmond-Hellmann named UC San Francisco chancellor
UCSF News Office, May 7, 2009

Biography of Susan Desmond-Hellmann
UCSF News Office, May 1, 2009