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New dean is focused on building a school prepared to lead in a changing medical landscape

June 19, 2014

When it came time for Jay Hess, M.D., Ph.D., to take over as dean of the IU School of Medicine last fall, he rented a U-Haul truck, packed up his office in Michigan, and made the roughly four-hour drive to Indianapolis. 

Jay and Jorge

Jay Hess, M.D., Ph.D., with Jorge Jose, left, M.D., IU vice president for research.

Once he arrived at Fairbanks Hall, home to the school’s administrative offices, he lugged the boxes inside by himself.

The lesson to take from this story: Jay Hess likes to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and that’s exactly what he’s done since arriving at IU.

Dr. Hess assumed the role of dean on September 1, becoming only the 10th person to lead the Indiana University School of Medicine in its 111-year history. He also wears the hat of vice president for university clinical affairs and serves on IU President Michael McRobbie’s cabinet. 

Though it’s early in his tenure and he is still shaping his vision for the future of the IU School of Medicine, Dr. Hess is crystal clear about what principles will guide him: “The School of Medicine is a public trust, and the only reason it exists is to serve the community by improving health. That’s why we’re here,” Dr. Hess says, adding, “My decision making will be guided by what’s in the best interest of the patient, first and foremost.”

Notably, Dr. Hess is the first dean since Dr. Charles Emerson, who held the position from 1911 to 1931, to come from outside the institution. He was most recently chair of the Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan School of Medicine and brings with him decades of experience as a successful researcher, clinician, educator, entrepreneur and leader. But he also knows he has a lot to learn about Indiana University, which – with the second largest medical school in the United States – is no small task.

So he’s hit the ground running. It’s not unusual for him to be awake at 4:45 a.m., at his desk before 7 a.m. – after squeezing in an early morning workout – and on the job until 8 p.m. or later. A typical day may be crammed with a dozen or more meetings with department chairs, faculty, donors, and leaders of partner hospital systems and the state’s life sciences industry.

In the midst of all that, he’s been visiting the school’s eight regional campuses around the state. And he even found time to go house hunting with his wife, Robin, settling on a “modern interpretation of a farmhouse” near Trader’s Point that they closed on this month.

“He’s really drinking from the fire hose,” says Anantha Shekhar, M.D., Ph.D., associate vice president for university clinical affairs and Raymond E. Houk Professor of Psychiatry. “He’s reaching out to a lot of people in a really short time.”

While this might sound exhausting, Dr. Hess is really in his element. Though many medical school deans stumble into academic administration accidentally and a bit reluctantly, the father of two dreamed about holding this kind of leadership position since fairly early in his career, and he’s sought experiences and additional training to ensure he would be successful.

“I really enjoy the creativity of building programs, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing people succeed,” says Dr. Hess, who turned 54 this month. “When you’ve structured things the right way and recruited the right people, many people benefit, but most importantly patients benefit. That’s a great source of satisfaction to me.”

The position at IU became available when D. Craig Brater, M.D., retired after 13 remarkable years at the helm of the School of Medicine. The job immediately appealed to Dr. Hess.

Asked what has impressed him most since arriving at IU, Dr. Hess cites the breadth of talent and expertise; the strength of the school’s clinical partners; the remarkable collaborations between the IU School of Medicine, industry and other universities; the support of donors and alumni; and the army of some 2,600 volunteer faculty who help each medical students around the state – expecting nothing in return. 

“I wanted to go to a place that was very well positioned for the future,” he says. Nine months into his reign at IU, he knows he’s in the right place.

Jay and students

Dr. Hess visits with medical students at IU School of Medicine -- Northwest in Gary. Each of the school's regional campuses will now offer all four years of the medical school curriculum.

A calling to medicine

 Jay Hess was raised in Southport, Connecticut,  the son of two artists who originally hailed from Oklahoma. His father was a commercial illustrator, working for publishers like Time Life and Reader’s Digest. His mother was a fashion illustrator in her earlier years. “I grew up in a family where creativity was extremely important,” Dr. Hess says. “You’d do school work and my dad’s question would be, ‘Is that the most creative work you can do?’ The focus was on being imaginative, really using all your gifts. The other advice I got was, ‘You can be anything you want to be except an artist.’”

In fact, Dr. Hess did inherit his parents’ creative genes. Growing up, he loved drawing, and while in Michigan, he enjoyed frequenting the Ann Arbor Art Fair and personally selected all new art for the pathology offices. He enjoys woodworking, singing and playing piano.

But the arts are a pastime. His true calling, it turns out, was medicine. That career goal was solidified in the seventh grade when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Geraldine Hess was a mom who doted over Jay and his sister. Seeing her sick pained him, and he couldn’t help but notice that the treatments doctors offered were ineffective, at times almost barbaric.

The experience taught him he wanted to be a doctor and a researcher. He wasn’t interested in delivering status quo medicine. He wanted to make healthcare better.

Dr. Hess went off to college at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied biophysics with the expectation of going to medical school. Early on, he began working in a lab. He also sang in the university’s choir. It was there that he met his wife of 29 years, Robin, who was a recent Hopkins graduate. He sings bass; she is an alto.

She remembers being struck by his discipline, and how focused he was on achieving his goals. He’d spend long hours studying and working in the lab, so much so that she marvels that he had time to go on a date. But mostly, she remembers being drawn to his thoughtful personality.

“He had a certain sensitivity, and he was easy to talk to,” says Mrs. Hess, who still occasionally sings alongside her husband in a church choir. “There was a nice gentleness to his nature that I liked.”

While away at school, his mother remained his biggest cheerleader, sending him daily notes of encouragement and newspaper clippings about science or medicine.

About midway through college, her cancer recurred. She underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, with little benefit. As she grew sicker, her notes became less frequent. Then one day they stopped. His mother died two months before graduation.

Shortly after, he enrolled in the highly selective MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins, resolving to make healthcare better so others wouldn’t have to suffer like his mother. He graduated in 1989, earning his medical degree and a Ph.D. in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology.

When it came time to choose a specialty, he gravitated toward pathology and trained at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals. Though he was offered a faculty appointment at Harvard following his residency and fellowships, he instead chose to move on to Washington University in St. Louis for the opportunity to work with Dr. Stanley Korsmeyer, a National Academy of Science member and leading cancer researcher.

Clinically, he focused on diagnostic hematopathology — diagnosing diseases of lymph nodes, blood and bone marrow. And under the influence of Dr. Korsmeyer, his research focused on the mixed lineage leukemia protein, MLL. Normally this protein regulates the identity of tissue in the developing embryo. Dr. Hess and his colleagues have provided many important insights into how the protein, when altered as a result of chromosomal translocations, can lead to leukemia.

After six years at Washington University, Dr. Hess went on to serve as head of hematopathology at the University of Pennsylvania and then to Michigan in 2005 to become chair of pathology. Along the way, he continued his research on MLL, defining the mechanisms the protein uses to cause leukemia, all the while looking for ways to develop better leukemia therapies. Discoveries tied to his work provided the basis for several drug candidates that are now being readied for early trials.

“So in my own research career I’ve been fortunate to go from the initial discovery all the way through to work to develop new therapies,” Dr. Hess says. “It’s gone the full spectrum.”

Jay and father

Jay Hess' father, Lowell, a commercial illustrator, encouraged him to think creatively, a lesson he carries with him to this day.

From lab to leadership

Dr. Hess thrived as chair of pathology and could well have had a successful and fulfilling career focused on his own research and clinical work. (When his wife, Robin, came to visit his new office for the first time, he didn’t show her the stunning view of the downtown canal, but enthusiastically pointed out that his office overlooks the nearby pathology building.)

But he found himself drawn to do more.

During his days at Penn, colleagues would stop by his office to chat and seek advice about their careers, research programs, or how to solve a particularly vexing problem. “I thought, ‘People seem to think you’re good at running things and leading things.’”

He enjoyed taking on leadership roles. As he considered the prospect of being a dean, he also recognized it would be important to carefully prepare for the job. He enrolled in an eight-course certificate program in business administration from The Wharton School, Penn’s prestigious business school.

“I was very interested in learning ways of doing things in business that are more efficient or better organized,” Dr. Hess recalls. “I always wanted to be in academics but to apply more of those principles, because ultimately if you run things well, people will benefit.”

Later, at Michigan, he once again found people knocking on his office door to seek his advice.

Dr. Ora H. Pescovitz, who left the IU School of Medicine in 2009 to become executive vice president for medical affairs and CEO of the University of Michigan Health System, recalls one such time.

The university was purchasing the shuttered Pfizer pharmaceutical research campus in Ann Arbor to allow for a massive expansion focused on translational research. Despite some substantial risks, department chairs in the medical school agreed to financially support the purchase, and a committee was formed to oversee the investment.

Dr. Hess was tapped to lead the group.

“During this period of change and concern, Jay’s steady leadership ultimately made sure the North Campus Research Complex was on the right track to achieve the original goal and vision,” says Dr. Pescovitz, whose many roles in Indiana included executive associate dean for research affairs at the medical school, president and CEO of Riley Hospital for Children, and interim vice president for research administration at IU. “Today, the NCRC is well on its way to becoming the thriving hub of prolific translational research that the chairs initially envisioned.”

While at Michigan, Dr. Hess started to get a sense that the healthcare landscape was changing, correctly predicting that the country would be moving toward population health management and accountable care organizations, and away from the fee-for-service model that had long reigned in medicine.

So just as he did at Penn, Dr. Hess returned to school, this time to earn a master’s in health services administration from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. The program was extraordinarily rigorous, and his wife, Robin, recalls him putting in sometimes grueling hours as he juggled coursework, his responsibilities as chair and family life. (Their son, Andrew, who is finishing his junior year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, was still in high school at the time, and their daughter, Leah, a soon-to-be high school senior, was in middle school when he started the program.)

But that isn’t out of character for him. “I think his mother passed on a lot of hard-working genes to him,” Mrs. Hess says.

Jay and father

Dr. Hess with his son, Andrew; wife, Robin; and daughter, Leah.

‘High expectations’

Ask people to describe Dr. Hess’ leadership style, and you inevitably get the same response: He’s quiet, and not one to try to dominate a meeting. Instead, he listens carefully and takes in all points of view. When he does talk, he’s decisive, and people pay attention. He sets goals and expects to meet them.

One look at his track record, and it’s clear that he does.

While chair at Michigan, Dr. Hess added 40 faculty members to the Department of Pathology, recruiting many away from other top-tier systems. The department’s grant funding soared, ranking seventh in the country at the time he left. He also co-founded Paradigm, a nonprofit company that uses genomic sequencing to help physicians personalize cancer care based on the unique “fingerprints” of a patient’s tumor.

“He was extremely successful in Michigan,” says Dr. Michael Koch, chairman of the IU Department of Urology and a member of the search committee that forwarded Dr. Hess’ name on to President McRobbie. “He built a program that’s kind of a reference program nationally for doing personalized medicine and gene analysis. It’s entrepreneurial.”

Dr. Koch is confident those experiences and Dr. Hess’ leadership skills will help IU – long known for its expertise in patient care – bolster its basic and translational research programs. “I think he’ll be a great dean,” says Dr. Koch, the John P. Donohue Professor of Urology. “He’s going to get it done.”

In fact, he’s well on his way and has already taken some key steps to increase the school’s impact. For instance, Dr. Hess recognizes the incredible potential for conducting clinical research through hospital partners around the state, including Indiana University Health’s 18-hospital system. This includes increasing the number of clinical trials conducted and ensuring that innovations are developed and implemented throughout Indiana.

Accordingly, one of his first major moves was to appoint Dr. Shekhar to the newly created position of IU associate vice president for university clinical affairs.

“We have a medical school that is statewide, we have a healthcare system that is statewide, and we have a lot of unmet needs in the state, so how do we strategically combine these issues and come up with a grand plan? That is part of my charge in this new position,” Dr. Shekhar says.

And he knows Dr. Hess expects progress. The new dean’s mantra is simple but telling: “The patient is waiting.”

Outside of the office, Dr. Hess is a devoted husband and father. Nearly three decades after marrying  Robin, he describes her as “the kindest, most patient, gentle spirited person I know.”

He’s quick to rattle off all the good work she does: She tends to a garden that produces fresh vegetables for the underprivileged, sings at the bedside of people in hospice, volunteers in a food pantry, and has been active in their children’s schools through the years.

In his spare time, you won’t find Dr. Hess on the couch channel-surfing. Mrs. Hess recalls how he threw himself into a home renovation project in Michigan, having researched everything from potential structural changes to lamps and paint colors before meeting with the designer. Like at work, he wasn’t interested in tinkering.

He developed a bold vision for what he wanted to accomplish, ultimately changing the roof line, adding a fire place, and removing a closet. And he expected only the finest finished product.

“Once the work was done he assessed very carefully whether everything was up to his standard, so he prepares, pays attention to details and follows through,” Mrs. Hess says. “He really has high expectations for himself and other people.”

That’s certainly proving true at the IU School of Medicine, where he has ambitious goals. His priorities include propelling a select number of research programs into the top tier nationally through strategic recruitments and investment. He’d also like to transform the site of the old Wishard Hospital, which shut down when the new Eskenazi Hospital opened, into a health sciences campus that includes a drug  discovery building and medical education center.

Most importantly, in a time when medical costs are spiraling out of control and many Americans still aren’t getting the care they need, he wants IU to be at the forefront of solving our nation’s healthcare crisis.

“It would be exciting if you could point to IU and say, ‘They became leaders in improving healthcare and moved us to a better place,’” Dr. Hess says. “I’d like to be known for having a national impact on the way healthcare is delivered.”

“We’re aspirational,” he continues. “We’re not satisfied with the status quo. We’re going to advance our research, education and clinical missions to make major innovations in healthcare, the kinds that improve people’s lives.”

After all, the patient is waiting.

This story is reprinted with permission from the spring 2014 edition of "IU Medicine."

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