Campus Community Welcomes New Chancellor During Era of Change

By Lisa Cisneros

From left, Linda Katehi, new chancellor of UC Davis, UC President Mark Yudof, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, new chancellor of UCSF, and UC Regent Richard Blum pose for a photo opportunity at UCSF Mission Bay.

Members of the campus and community at large welcome the arrival of Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, who began her career at UCSF as a medical resident and is returning to become its first woman chancellor.

Many say the selection of Desmond-Hellmann, 51, to lead UCSF is a major milestone in the 145-year history of the University because she brings with her an understanding of the campus culture, clinical and research expertise, and proven success in the private sector, where she thrived, rising to president of product development at Genentech.

Some longtime UCSF leaders believe today’s vote by the UC Regents approving Desmond-Hellmann as the ninth chancellor represents a turning point at a critical time for the University and the nation – both rife with challenges and ripe with opportunities.

“The energy we all feel with the announcement of our new chancellor is palpable,” says Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, PharmD, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy, who earned her graduate degree from UCSF in 1969. “Dr. Desmond-Hellmann brings exceptional science and health care expertise to the post, as well as the business savvy we need now to take advantage of the sea changes around us.

“She is a new kind of chancellor for a new time – for a changing university. She understands not only our mission, but how to manage complex organizations and the importance of institutional focus. Her appointment signals to the world that UCSF holds intellect, leadership and authority to be gender-blind. I have no doubt that years from now, we will note as a turning point in UCSF’s history Dr. Desmond-Hellmann’s appointment as our chancellor.”

Today, Desmond-Hellmann shared the spotlight with Linda Katehi, PhD, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and provost of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose appointment as chancellor of UC Davis also was approved by the Regents. Some are heartened by the strong signal of promoting two women to top posts at UC campuses.

“It is gratifying to see UCSF now join the other UC campuses with an appointment of a woman chancellor, especially to occur at the same time with UC Davis,” says Alma Sisco-Smith, director of the UCSF Work~Life Resource Center. “This speaks volumes not only for UCSF, but for the UC system – it is a powerful message.”

At UCSF, the promotion of a woman to the helm is a step toward improving diversity among senior leadership, as recommended in the UCSF Strategic Plan.

“Lack of ethnic diversity on our campuses can justifiably be explained by the lack of people in the pipeline,” says Regis Kelly, PhD, director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, or QB3. “That excuse cannot be used to explain a lack of gender diversity. More than half of our students are now female. We can only hope that Dr. Desmond-Hellmann’s appointment is but one step towards gender equality in the University of California leadership.”

Sally Marshall, PhD, vice provost of Academic Affairs, points out that “although the strategic plan says we need more diversity in senior leadership, three of five deans are women and two of four vice chancellors (including acting) are underrepresented minorities.”

Adds Michael Adams, director of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity, “This is an important milestone, and worth celebrating, both for Desmond-Hellmann and for the current Board of Regents. She was prepared, and clearly the Regents selected her based on her excellent qualifications in a competitive and fair process, resulting in part from a commitment to diversity in attracting top candidates.”

For Patricia Calarco, PhD, dean of the UCSF Graduate Division, today’s appointments are a long time coming. “I am very impressed with Susan Desmond-Hellmann, very pleased that our campus has its first female chancellor and excited to welcome back a UCSF alumna! If my count is correct, the two appointments for UCSF and UC Davis will place in office the sixth and seventh female chancellors in the history of the University of California.

“More important than gender, however, is the recognition of an extremely talented leader for UCSF who not only can oversee our clinical functions and bring business-based efficiencies to our administration, but also can be a passionate advocate for research and student and postdoc training, for which our campus is renowned. As one of the 50 most powerful women in business, she is, I know, up to these challenges.”

Desmond-Hellmann, who comes from a family of health care professionals, most recently led product development at Genentech, where she oversaw successful trials for therapeutic drugs, including Herceptin, Avastin and Rituxan, targeting a range of cancers.

Forging Alliances

The prevailing opinion among those asked about Desmond-Hellmann is that she will help bridge the divide of academia and industry – strengthening an essential alliance to ensure expeditious and effective transfer of UCSF’s basic and clinical science discoveries into benefits for the public. That very goal is articulated in the UCSF Strategic Plan, which states that “new expertise and funding will help the University achieve its mission of advancing health worldwide™.

“She will bring an exceptional grasp of the importance and potential of clinical and translational research and strong ties to the pharmaceutical and biotech communities, both of which will fill important needs for the campus in the future,” says David Gardner, MD, chair of the Academic Senate at UCSF.

Sam Hawgood, MB, BS, interim dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, agrees. “None of the major advances in prevention and treatment of disease can happen without effective collaborations among government, academic institutions and the private sector,” he says. “Dr. Desmond-Hellmann will help UCSF focus on the most important basic and clinical research that is best done in an academic environment, and help us form appropriate collaborations with the private sector and others so that our discoveries can be translated into advances in human health as quickly as possible.”

Hawgood and others believe that UCSF’s environment, a training ground known for its tradition of multidisciplinary collaboration, fosters the development of global leaders in health care delivery, research and education.

And the evidence of UCSF’s legacy of leadership cultivated on this campus is mounting – with recent examples being Julie Gerberding, MD, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Bush administration and Harold Varmus, MD, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Chancellor Mike Bishop, MD, in 1989. Varmus now serves as co-chair of the Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the Obama administration.

“One of UCSF’s unique characteristics is a culture that encourages entrepreneurship – not just in the business sense, but scientific entrepreneurship,” Hawgood says. “Our students and trainees learn how to break through barriers and to address some of the most challenging scientific problems that affect human health. [Desmond-Hellmann’s] UCSF training certainly prepared her well for a successful career at Genentech. Now, all of us at UCSF will benefit from her experience there.”

William J. Rutter, PhD, UCSF’s Herzstein Professor of Biochemistry emeritus and chairman and CEO of Synergenics LLC, understands what it takes to succeed and thinks Desmond-Hellmann is the right person for the job. Rutter, who spoke at a health care summit at UCSF Mission Bay on May 6, is a pioneer of the biotechnology industry and a visionary UCSF leader.

“Sue is a multidimensional person,” Rutter says. “She is a wide-ranging and thoughtful physician, and she understands not only how health care is delivered, but also how business operates. Where she is totally unique is in developing culture, which she has done so successfully at Genentech. She is truly an exhilarating person and personality.”

Fresh Perspective

Dixie Horning, executive director of the UCSF Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, is among those who believe that the community will benefit from a fresh perspective.

“My first reaction was that we look forward to learning from and working with her as we strategize how to advance women’s health at UCSF and in our communities,” she says. “My second was that women and diverse individuals will be inspired by the choice.”

For Sisco-Smith, the appointment sends a positive message to all who work, study and train at UCSF.

“We often hear the adage to ‘grow your own,’ and this appointment seems to be the epitome,” Sisco-Smith says. “What better benefit than to attract the best and the brightest, to create a learning climate that is welcoming, stimulating, exciting, to expand upon one’s training and add depth to one’s portfolio, and then return to the crucible of learning, where you can give back and contribute more globally. For UCSF to have this story told and repeated by others is awesome.”

Elliott Gorelick, president of the Associated Students of UCSF in 2008-2009, believes that Desmond-Hellmann will be a role model for students and trainees. “It’s exciting to see the first woman at the helm of UCSF – even more so because she trained here,” he says. ”I’m most impressed, however, by the amazing success she has had in her career without regard to her gender. Her returning to UCSF after rising to a position of leadership at Genentech not only shows our willingness to embrace ideas from the outside, but also is an acknowledgment of the prestige and relevance of UCSF’s mission.”

Carlos Garcia, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), says he’s looking forward to meeting Desmond-Hellmann. “We’ll be looking at ways of expanding the great programs in our incredible partnership with UCSF. There are very few partnerships like this that exist in this country.”

Garcia, who was the keynote speaker at a May 5 luncheon to officially kick off an expanded partnership with UCSF, says the new chancellor will play a key role in developing the relationship that began decades ago, thanks to the insight and innovation of Bruce Alberts, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics and president emeritus of the National Academy of Sciences.

In a world that is constantly evolving – notably a new US president in the White House who is leading the nation’s renewed investment in science and reform of health care – the appointment of Desmond-Hellmann is fortunate timing.

“Change is in the air and a good thing!” exclaims Paul Volberding, MD, vice chair of the Department of Medicine and chief of the Medical Service at San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “Sue may be an ideal person to lead UCSF in a very challenging but opportunity-filled environment. She has substantial personal experience in global health as we are trying to launch a School of Global Health. She has led drug discovery in the biotechnology sector – obviously crucial to the achievement of Mike Bishop’s vision at Mission Bay.

“She is our first woman as chancellor at a time when women are filling our ranks of students, trainees and young faculty, and has fresh ideas on how the most talented members of our entire community can become successful in their careers. This is a truly transformative moment in the history of UCSF and proves the variety of paths enabled by training at our university.”

Related Links:

Susan Desmond-Hellmann Named UC San Francisco Chancellor
UC Newsroom, May 7, 2009

Biography of Susan Desmond-Hellmann

History of UCSF Chancellors


Photos by Susan Merrell