Medical School Dean Reflects on His First Decade
Joseph E. Kerschner, MD ’90, FEL ’98, was named the tenth dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine, and executive vice president, in November 2011, following 11 months as interim dean. At the time of his interim appointment, Dr. Kerschner was CEO of Children’s Specialty Group (a joint venture of MCW and what is now Children’s Wisconsin). He assumed the additional role of provost in 2017 and in late 2020, was named The Julia A. Uihlein, MA, Dean of the School of Medicine.
Dr. Kerschner also is a professor in the departments of otolaryngology and communication sciences, and microbiology & immunology. He has held numerous leadership roles in organized medicine, including chair of the board of directors for the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), chair of the AAMC Council of Deans, president of the American Society of Pediatric Otolaryngology and president of the International Society for Otitis Media.
In honor of the 10th anniversary of Dr. Kerschner’s formal installation as dean on February 15, 2012, he sat down for a question-and-answer session with the executive editor of MCW Magazine to reflect on his past decade in this critical leadership role.
What are the most important lessons you have learned during your tenure as dean, School of Medicine (SOM)?
Know your values and leadership style and stay true to those principles – for me, that has included the 5Ps (PEOPLE, PROGRAMS, PLANNING, PRACTICE and PARTNERSHIPS), servant leadership and bringing superior effort every single day.
When I entered the Dean’s Office, I was somewhat surprised to realize the level of infrastructure-building that was required for MCW to become a “modern” $1 billion+ organization. As some examples, there was no central tracking system to allow leaders to follow their team’s performance, and some units in the SOM did not provide annual reviews for staff and faculty to discuss their progress, accomplishments and goals. Given my belief that our PEOPLE are MCW’s greatest asset, it was clear that we needed a significant cultural change. This has required enormous effort, but we now invest in our PEOPLE and develop them in a much different way than a decade ago.
I also learned how some important things related to developing a sustained and successful future in the SOM. For our faculty leaders, this has meant breaking away from the traditional “one package per leader” that was meant to last them for their entire tenure as a leader at MCW and, instead, giving them an opportunity to reboot their investments every five years.
In addition, this has meant crafting an endowment to support our academic strategy. In the past 10 years, I have worked with faculty leaders, President Raymond, our trustees and finance team to create more than $1.4 billion worth of endowments in the SOM. This has placed MCW as one of the best-endowed medical schools in the country.
How do you feel your ongoing work as both a clinician and a researcher helps connect you to the faculty?
I believe it has been a critical part of my deanship that I have continued to balance all of my responsibilities as dean and still see patients and have an NIH-funded research laboratory. It’s important that faculty and staff in the clinical and research missions recognize that the dean fully understands their work and does it along with them. I have been a funded investigator with peer-reviewed grants since I started at MCW as a faculty member. Maintaining my lab and securing more than $15 million in research funding over my career has solidified that I completely understand their scientific world.
What do you feel have been your greatest accomplishments as dean, SOM?
In general terms, much of what I am most proud of falls into the PEOPLE category:
Mentoring PEOPLE at MCW along all levels of their career continues to be a high priority for me. This includes pre- and postdoctoral students who are on their way to wonderful academic careers, junior faculty to become leaders at MCW and elsewhere, and senior faculty to become national leaders at MCW and elsewhere.
I have worked with many others to help MCW become a much more diverse organization. In the SOM, we have more than tripled the number of women leaders and have substantively increased the diversity of our leaders. The medical school class diversity has grown in so many ways.
By working with others, we developed psychiatry residencies in our regional campuses (PDF). Mental health issues are some of society’s most significant issues, and access to professionals in many parts of Wisconsin was almost nonexistent. These new residencies will completely change the landscape for access in our state. We’ve increased the number of psychiatrists training in Wisconsin by 40 percent, and many of our providers are staying in areas of the state that are the most underserved.
What do you feel have been your greatest challenges as dean, SOM?
Without question, my greatest challenge as dean has been leading in the SOM during some real times of tragedy. First on this list (and related to the mental health comments above) occurred when there was a loss of a student to suicide. One positive outcome was elevating the conversation about these issues and substantive changes in the way in which we provide mental health services to our learners. There have been other losses of faculty and staff and also loved ones of faculty and staff. Each one of these stays with me, and all affected remain in my thoughts and prayers.
Second has been the COVID pandemic and the enormous strain and difficulty this has caused all at MCW and throughout the world.
How do you feel your national leadership positions have benefited MCW?
When I took the dean’s role, it was pretty common for people to get MCW confused with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. That rarely happens anymore, and certainly not in the fashion that was previously common. In part, because of these national roles, virtually all medical school deans and leaders of our academic health systems know about MCW and what makes us unique. But also, importantly, these national leadership roles have allowed for the development of professional relationships and friendships with some of the most prominent leaders in academic medicine around the country – enhancing the exchange of ideas and best practices and establishing collaborations at the national level.
One truly critical example occurred during the pandemic involving federal CARES Act monies. Partly due to my work with the AAMC, MCW was able to elevate early on in the pandemic that medical schools or physician practices like we have at MCW were not being considered for support from these funds. In working with the AAMC leadership, we were able to get MCW and similar institutions considered for significant support and receipt of CARES Act funds to help cover the losses sustained due to the pandemic’s impact on our physicians’ ability to treat patients.
What would you like your legacy as dean, SOM, to be?
As I have mentioned above, the 5Ps have guided what I have done in the Dean’s Office over the past decade, and by far, the most important is the PEOPLE aspect of this. I would hope that students, staff and faculty would say that Dean Kerschner cared deeply for the PEOPLE of MCW and worked as hard as possible to create avenues for the PEOPLE to reach the best version of themselves.
Some of MCW's milestones achieved during Dr. Kerschner's tenure as dean:
November 11, 2011: Dr. Kerschner appointed executive vice president and dean of the School of Medicine
February 15, 2012: Dr. Kerschner installed as dean of the School of Medicine and executive vice president
August 2012: School of Medicine launches the new Discovery Curriculum
May 29, 2015: Board of Trustees approves the creation of a School of Pharmacy
July 1, 2015: MCW-Green Bay matriculates inaugural class of 26 medical students
July 5, 2016: MCW-Central Wisconsin matriculates inaugural class of 26 medical students
June 8, 2017: MCW creates the Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Institute for the Transformation of Medical Education
June 23, 2017: Dr. Kerschner named MCW’s first provost
August 2017: School of Pharmacy matriculates inaugural class of 48 pharmacy students
December 2017: New Hub for Collaborative Medicine opens
October 2018: MCW establishes the Center for the Advancement of Women in Science and Medicine
June 2019: Board of Trustees approves 2020-2025 School of Medicine Research Strategic Plan
November 2019: Dr. Kerschner becomes chair of the board of directors of the AAMC
November 2020: Dr. Kerschner named The Julia A. Uihlein, MA, Dean of the School of Medicine
April 2021: New affiliation agreement among MCW, Children’s Specialty Group and Children’s Wisconsin approved
June 2021: LCME votes to continue full accreditation to MCW’s medical education program
December 2021: Dr. Kerschner and research team receive patent for novel technology to treat otitis media
– Sara L. Wilkins