Friday, September 17, 2010  

Worth Every Effort: Saving Charles Drew University


Last week, the leaders of an unprecedented coalition of health, university and civic institutions announced a commitment to rally around the financially distressed Charles Drew University in South Los Angeles, and brighten its prospects for a more vibrant future. Born out of the Watts riots and social unrest more than 40 years ago, Charles Drew has matured into a health improvement, education, training, and research force serving South Los Angeles and beyond in recent decades.

As noted in a recent Los Angeles Times article, one of the major changes includes a reconstitution of Drew’s Board of Trustees. Seven new trustees were elected, from institutions such as UCLA, USC, Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. While most of the previous Board members voluntarily resigned, four trustees who served on the prior Drew Board were re-elected, providing some degree of continuity. Dr. Roy Wilson, a renowned ophthalmologist, researcher, and academic executive, was elected Chair of the newly reconstituted Board of Trustees at Drew.

In addition, there is a new Board of Councilors which is chaired by LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. On it are a group of chief executives representing the above-mentioned institutions, the President of Cal State-Dominguez University, and myself from The California Endowment. This group of CEOs and Presidents has pledged to provide advice and support in the months ahead, as the hard work continues to bring fiscal and operational stability to Charles Drew. The major challenges faced by Drew include a potential default on a $40 million-plus loan for a new Nursing School Building, a budget deficit of some significance, and a troubled accreditation status for one of its key academic programs. The outgoing Drew Board Chair, Bart Williams Esq., acknowledged some mistakes by the Board that contributed to the fiscal instability.

These developments have all been reported by the media in recent days, but I wanted to take this opportunity to pass on some observations that have largely gone unnoticed and unreported by the media. These observations are drawn from my first-hand experience over the past several months working closely with Bart Williams and Dr. Keith Norris, who served as the interim President at Drew.

The first observation is that Mr. Bart Williams, in his role as Chair of the Board, managed an exceedingly difficult and stress-laden period in Drew’s history with energy, class, dignity, grace, and leadership. He sorted through a short list of mostly bad options, and arrived at the decision, in consultation with the rest of the Board, that he and many other Board members would need to voluntarily resign in order to save Drew. Mr. Williams offered his resignation first, and in a world seemingly dominated by a widespread lack of accountability, refused to point fingers at anyone but himself.

The second observation is that Dr. Keith Norris, who served as the interim President at Drew during this difficult period, provided outstanding leadership as well, despite having inherited an utterly unfixable financial management system and situation at the University. He somehow managed to keep the trains running at the university, and made some tough-minded management decisions to reduce an operating budget deficit that would have irreversibly buried Charles Drew under a mountain of debt. Dr. Norris voluntarily submitted his resignation as interim President, but will thankfully return to his previous role as a leader in research at the institution.

I will not forget the selfless brand of leadership these two professionals exhibited during this pivotal moment in Drew’s history.

Now, we look forward. The road will not be easy for Dr. Wilson, Dr. Cornelius Hopper, and the professionals on the new Drew Board of Trustees. A permanent President and/or CEO will need to be recruited, budgets will need to be balanced (along with the tough decisions that accompany the balancing of budgets), accreditation will need to be restored, and dollars will need to be raised.

To the Charles Drew faculty, administration, students, alumni, and supporters: the prospects for continuing the legacy of Charles Drew University have just brightened considerably. Your dedication and work is noted, recognized, and appreciated. Dr. Roy Wilson will need your understanding, your patience, and your support in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

Dr. Robert K. Ross
President and CEO
The California Endowment



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