There are bound to be a number of reasons, justifications or rationalizations offered for Dr. Michael Welch's decision to leave his job as vice chancellor for research at the Kansas University School of Medicine, but the fact remains KU and KU Medical Center have lost a true all-star.
Welch will leave KU at the end of November to become president and chief executive officer of the Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School.
Since arriving at KU in 1998, Welch has been the medical school's most effective salesman and representative. He has the rare ability to use his vast academic and medical expertise to explain the importance of medical research in a way that is understandable to average citizens (and lawmakers). He also has been extremely successful in attracting research dollars.
There has been great attention in recent years to the Life Sciences Initiative in Kansas City and the role KUMC would play in developing this project in conjunction with the Stowers Institute, Midwest Research Institute and a number of other Kansas City-area hospitals and research centers.
Kansas City and area leaders have been counting on the life sciences effort to put Kansas City in the national spotlight. It clearly is this area's biggest effort to do something to secure a national reputation and federal research dollars.
When members of the Kansas Board of Regents, with the strong support of state legislators such as Kenny Wilk of Lansing, put together a plan for special financing for three specific projects at Kansas State University, KU and Wichita State University, Welch was the spokesman for the KU project.
All Kansas legislators were asked to attend a meeting at KSU where the three unique projects were outlined, and school officials asked for legislative support. It is known that many lawmakers supported the plan because Welch endorsed the effort and they believed he would be a major player.
Welch was the driving force in the development of KUMC's brain imaging center, which is being funded to a large degree by Sally and Forrest Hoglund of Dallas. Hoglund is chairman of KU First, the university's $500 million capital campaign.
Clearly, Welch has been an extremely important individual at KUMC. No one is indispensable, and his position will be filled by another able person. Nevertheless, it is a huge loss for KUMC as well as for the state huge in terms of his expertise and abilities and huge in terms of his reputation and the respect he holds among area leaders and lawmakers.
Welch is quick to say KU has treated him well, that the future is bright and that KUMC is poised to jump to a higher level of excellence with more research funding. He emphasizes KU and KUMC officials have been "extraordinarily kind" in the manner they have worked with him.
At the same time, in Chicago he will be a president and chief executive officer, an opportunity not available at KU. Dr. Donald Hagen, executive vice chancellor at KUMC, is said to want to remain in his position for the next three to five years. In addition, Welch will receive a substantial pay increase in Chicago.
A disturbing facet of this situation is that Welch's departure is just the latest of several losses of very talented individuals at KUMC. Deborah Powell, former executive dean of the medical school, left for the deanship of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, researchers Dr. Billy Hudson and Dr. S.K. Dey left for posts at Vanderbilt University, and Dr. Thomas DuBose, professor and chairman of internal medicine, left for a position in West Virginia. It wasn't long ago that attracting DuBose was hailed by KU and KUMC officials as a great coup for the school.
When these people left, KUMC officials were quick to say, or infer, that their departures wouldn't harm the school's efforts. In the case of Welch, an official said that even though Welch had served as a coordinator for KU on the Life Sciences Initiative, his departure wouldn't imperil the effort. Although he helped secure millions of dollars of research money for KUMC, a school official said, "Mike isn't doing the research. Other scientists were doing the research. Mike was telling the story." Faint praise.
He did an excellent job, and no matter how KU and KUMC officials try to minimize the negative impact of his departure, it is a major loss. Several weeks ago, when word leaked about the possible loss of Welch, one of the school's most distinguished faculty members said it would be a terrible blow, a critical blow to the medical center if he should leave. Now we're told it really isn't that bad.
Concerning the other departures, one university official said a couple of those who left had been troublemakers, "part of the problem," with the current unrest at the Medical Center. There have been increasing questions about the school's leadership and some wonder who really called the shots: Hagen, Powell or Welch. They asked about the role and degree of involvement of Chancellor Hemenway. Now, Powell and Welch are gone, as are DuBose, Hudson and Dey. Dr. Peter Witt in plastic surgery also has left for a private hospital in California.
Maybe this is a normal rate of attrition of talent in a good medical school. If a school has top-flight individuals, they are bound to receive many job offers. Likewise, with personnel cuts and salary restrictions triggered by the state's fiscal trials, attractive offers from other schools are going to receive greater attention.
Nevertheless, something isn't right at the Medical Center. There's every reason to be positive, optimistic and enthusiastic about the potential future of KUMC if there is sound, positive and visionary leadership paired with adequate funding. The unsettled nature of the medical community in greater Kansas City provides a window of opportunity for KUMC to assume a true leadership role.
However, things are not working as smoothly as they should. Funding is tenuous and questionable, there's the possibility the flight of talented staffers may accelerate with Welch's departure, and there is the question of leadership.
Dr. Barbara Atkinson, who has moved into the executive deanship, is highly regarded by many of her associates. How she will operate as a leader and the level of leadership she will be able to exercise is yet to be seen.
One factor is known: Many Kansas lawmakers are extremely upset about the loss of Welch. It has been suggested that both Hemenway and Welch should be asked to appear before a legislative committee to explain what is going on at the Medical Center. One has said he wants Gov. Bill Graves to look into the situation. A lawmaker has said he is worried about how his fellow legislators will respond when they learn of Welch's departure because many of them had banked on him when voting to approve the special funding package for KU, KSU and WSU. A legislator said that if money was the reason Welch decided to leave, why didn't KU officials ask for special help to keep the distinguished executive, and why haven't KSU and WSU been losing top teachers and researchers at the rate KU has experienced?
In an earlier column, this writer noted that many at the Medical Center had suggested the facility was operating as a dysfunctional family. Apparently, the dysfunction continues, and no one knows the eventual cost of this unfortunate and unnecessary situation.