Winter 2013

Strengthening Our Research Potential

Harris BermanNews reports on the rising cost of college for American families and the unsupportable levels of debt that students are taking on have given many of us pause. That debt now totals more than $1 trillion. The nation’s economy has been sputtering. Tuitions continue to rise as employment opportunities shrink.

All these trends raise some obvious and compelling questions for us. In the current economic climate, is our educational model functioning as well as it needs to, or is some fundamental reappraisal in order?

Questions such as these are not limited to undergraduate education. Medical schools everywhere are facing the same kinds of conflicts–in our case, between rising tuition and generally reduced funding for medical research.

Your medical school has already taken measures, including the creation of several master’s and certificate programs, not only to meet societal needs but also to increase revenue without further pressure on our students’ tuition. We have trimmed expenses. The general approach around our campus of late has been to do more with less. One thing is clear: We can’t keep running things the old way.

Tufts is proud to be a research university, with all that that means for bettering the public welfare through our hard work in the classroom and in the laboratory. We have always had, and strive to continue to have, a positive impact on the society of which we are a part. We have no intention of abandoning that historic mission.

Yet given our institutional goals and budget constraints, how should we position ourselves as a medical school for the days ahead? Any answer must be collaborative. We have been consulting with basic-sciences faculty—first with a faculty retreat in March 2012 to pose the problem and then with a faculty committee to frame a new vision for research, launched last spring. This was followed by multiple small gatherings of faculty members in November and December to explore the details in depth. The conversations in these meetings have been thoughtful, frequently passionate, but constructive.

A number of overarching questions have guided our discussions. What strengths does our medical school have that set it apart from its peer institutions? How can we build on what we have, rather than veer off course into total reinvention? And a related, pragmatic question: What kinds of research are most apt to be funded five, 10 or 15 years from now? Finally, a question that reminds us why we entered medicine in the first place: How, through our research, can we deliver the greatest positive impact on the health of the world?

These are some long-term issues. But consider a question that pertains more immediately to the way the school has been organized for decades: If we trim the total number of basic science departments within the school, which themes for our research make the most sense? For example, we have a proven strength in cancer research here at Tufts, especially breast cancer. Cancer research could supply a strong natural focus, or theme, to organize ourselves around.

Neuroscience and microbiology have already been successfully reorganized. We have recruited star faculty in recent years, created state-of-the-art laboratory space for them, added support staff and drawn national attention to these programs. It makes sense to proceed from strength to strength in these areas.

And so after months of sustained discussion and analysis, in settings large and small, we at the medical school envision a likely future organization built around three or four such major themes. Inevitably, any reorganization will mean some realignment of faculty and departments. The new model will be leaner and more attuned to funding opportunities than ever before.

Change is always difficult. I understand that. We are in the early stages of a dramatic transition as a medical school. Most agree that change is necessary, but that doesn’t make the day-to-day process any easier. I am confident that when this process concludes, Tufts University School of Medicine will be a strong, vibrant and focused research institution, poised to have an even greater impact on curing disease and promoting health.

Harris A. Berman, M.D., is the dean of Tufts University School of Medicine.

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