Today marks the end of UC San Francisco Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann’s five-year tenure. In December, it was announced that she would step down from her current position to become CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Desmond-Hellmann took over at UCSF in 2009, at a time of system-wide budget cuts, tuition increases and layoffs. As tuition continued to rise, she became the target of harsh criticism over high salaries for administrators and faculty.
“A 23,000 person, $4 billion university does not run on its own gas. It needs leadership,” she told KQED’s Scott Shafer recently. “The ability to hire people and pay them what they are worth is good for the state, good for the university, and shouldn’t be the subject of pandering.”
When she was appointed, Desmond-Hellmann became the first female Chancellor in UCSF’s 150-year history. Prior to joining the university, she directed the development of new drugs at biotech company Genentech, a background she said was more controversial than her gender.
“[I] felt no pressure as the first woman Chancellor. I did feel some pressure that individuals looked to me as a drug company lady,” Desmond-Hellmann told Shafer, adding that some in the university were originally “suspicious of my motives, suspicious that I would value private industry over our public mission.”
Despite initial skepticism and continuing budgetary struggles, Desmond-Hellmann helped UCSF become one of the top publicly funded medical schools in the country, boasting prestigious dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy programs. In addition to robust research and clinical operations, Desmond-Hellmann points to the establishment of precision medicine as a distinguishing contribution to the University.
“Genomics, electronic health records, self-monitoring. The ability to use algorithms to seek information in data, in what some people call ‘Big Data,’” she explained. “Massive amounts of information about you being pooled with other information in a network of knowledge that can … help care for you.”
Desmond-Hellmann points to UCSF’s location “in the heart of high tech” as a reason the school is perfectly positioned at the forefront of this new medical field.
University of California President Janet Napolitano praised Desmond-Hellmann’s contributions, saying despite “one of the worst fiscal crises in UC’s history,” she is leaving UCSF “a better, more vibrant institution than when she arrived.”
At the Gates Foundation, Desmond-Hellmann will focus on alleviating worldwide poverty, improving healthcare in developing countries and strengthening America’s educational system. In a memo to the UCSF community, she said she hopes “that my leadership can contribute to creating a more equitable world.”
UCSF is currently conducting a national search for a new chancellor to lead the university. In the meantime, Napolitano has appointed UCSF School of Medicine Dean Sam Hawgood as interim chancellor.
Another version of this story aired on “KQED Newsroom,” which is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.