EDITOR’S NOTE: Community Newsmaker is a monthly series that sheds light on topical issues through the eyes of local newsmakers. Today, Georgia Health Sciences University President Ricardo Azziz talks about the strategic plan for growth and expansion, the consolidation with Augusta State University, and the relationship with the community and community leaders.
Azziz became the eighth president of the Medical College of Georgia in July 2010. He also became CEO of the university’s health system and chairman of the boards overseeing them, quickly moving the school’s Physicians Practice Group under the auspices of one of the boards. That aligned three entities that had previously fought protracted battles over funding and other issues.
Azziz also began the process of fully integrating the three entities, emphasizing the university as one enterprise.
After moving to address faculty dissatisfaction, he began trying to rebrand the university by moving to change the name, which is now Georgia Health Sciences University. He also began creating a long-term strategic plan for university advancement.
Earlier this year, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents voted to merge Augusta State University with GHSU under Azziz; ASU President William A. Bloodworth Jr. had already announced his retirement.
Though they are seemingly disparate entities – one primarily graduate education and the other mostly undergraduate – the universities have a lot in common, Azziz said.
“We value the same things ASU does,” he said. “We value good education. We value good training. We value good faculty members.”
As happened earlier at GHSU, Azziz sees the process as an integration that will result in one entity.
“We will work and we will function as one integrated university,” he said. “We may have multiple
campuses, but even today we have multiple campuses (at GHSU)... We will be avoiding creating parallel silos. We’ve worked very hard at our current integration to do that..”
In fact, Azziz said, he is strongly leaning toward moving his office to the ASU campus.
Azziz said he was asked by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby to address what role GHSU will play in health professions education in the state. The university has responded with a statewide model that takes in all levels of health profession degrees.
“That we will serve the state in a greater capacity, that we will emphasize a hub-and-spoke model for the delivery of advanced degrees, that we will emphasize a distributed model across the state for associate, bachelor and technical-type degrees,” Azziz said.
Within that context is also the university’s desire to become a top-50 research institution in terms of funding from the National Institutes of Health, an ambition endorsed by Gov. Nathan Deal in January.
To go from about 70th in NIH funding to the top 50 means increasing from about $63 million to at least $80 million. It will also mean doubling the research space and hiring an additional 100-150 scientists, all of which means raising more money. The university has not really tapped the support Azziz said is out there locally and statewide.
“It is true that many philanthropists and would-be philanthropists in Augusta yet are still waiting on the sidelines to see if this is really a match that will be won (by GHSU),” Azziz said.
The university will soon reveal its ambitious Transformation 2020 plan, which encompasses its strategic priorities, such as expanding research and increasing diversity. As part of that, the university will look to use its debt-financing ability to stoke “public/private capital ventures for research, clinical, and academic facilities,” according to a preliminary draft of the plan.
Deal also spoke about the university’s ambition to become the state’s second National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center, besides Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center. Pursuing that goal will help fulfill the strategic plan and push the university toward top-50 status, Azziz said.
“To become an NCI-designated Cancer Center, that designation primarily circles around the amount of innovative and cutting-edge research and researchers that you have,” he said. “As you bring in high-quality researchers who really are the world’s experts on particular topics, your ability to offer clinical care, particularly around that group of diseases and disorders, actually increases as well. (It) also elevates the quality of the care given and elevates the kind of education you’re providing because now, you truly have the world’s experts, the professors there.”
In the past year or so, the university and its foundation have created some controversy, first with an idea to close part of Laney-Walker Boulevard to create a pedestrian mall to make it safer for students to cross, and then with the foundation’s objection to a proposed plan using nearby city property to create a downtown Walmart. Azziz said the lesson from that might be the need for “vigorous dialogues.”
It also means sometimes pushing the community to stop focusing just on the past.
Azziz says the community’s and the university’s fates are intertwined.
“At the end of the day, the university does have a significant interest in making sure the city does better,” he said. “Why? It isn’t as altruistic as you may think. It simply has to do with the fact that a city that does better can support the university better in turn.”
The university is looking at potential new student housing downtown, for instance, and supports the revitalization of the Laney-Walker neighborhood. Azziz finds it odd that the university has been left out of some discussions that affect the institution, and that many planners don’t work together, but he hopes that is changing.
“To be fair, in the last year, 12 months, that I’ve been here, I’ve been hearing more and more people say to us, ‘Let’s find these solutions,’ ” Azziz said. “‘It doesn’t matter who takes credit. Let’s get this done.’ I think that you’ll be seeing a sea of change in that regard. I’m actually very excited about it.”