Dr. Ricardo Azziz has a lot on his plate as the next president of Medical College of Georgia. He sat down to talk with The Augusta Chronicle during a visit last week to campus and to attend the University System of Georgia Board of Regents meeting. After he takes over July 1, he will spend the first six weeks or so meeting individually with as many people as he can inside and outside the school to get their takes on the challenges ahead and aspirations for the future.
"I believe in personal interaction between individuals," Azziz said. He has left open the door to working again with the MCG Foundation, which had its relationship with the school ended by previous MCG President Daniel W. Rahn. He also said he will look into The Chronicle's investigation of MCG administration salaries, which increased by 53 percent over the last five years, including some who got more than a 90-percent raise.
Azziz also shared his thoughts on some other topics, including a newly aligned health system with the MCG president at its helm, and the need to promote more clinical and translational research at MCG where discoveries in the lab move quicker to become treatments in the clinic.
Some of the answers have been edited for brevity and the questions summarized.
Q: You said earlier you understand there is concern in the community and some faculty and staff are "frustrated" with administrative salaries. What do you plan to do?
A: We have to be careful about how to interpret your data. Not because your data is flawed. I applaud you for looking into that. (But) very often regional universities who now need to move into a national prominence need to understand that there is a cost and a value to having proper leadership. We often use the word administration rather than the word leadership. Because I think most of us understand what leadership is, although less of us value administration.
It may well be that this increase in costs was justified in order for us to actually move to the next level of growth and to actually serve and begin to function as a mature university. However, to be fair, I will be investigating this data. I will be doing my own analysis. I will be trying to arrive at my own conclusions and trying to come up with some understanding of both the trends, where we are and whether we need to continue to grow administratively.
Q: There will be a roughly $10 million cut in state funding in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. How involved are you at this point in that budget?
A: I currently am relatively engaged in the (Fiscal Year 2011) budget. I'm obviously doing it at arm's length. I have deep respect for (Interim MCG President) Dr. (James N.) Thompson and his team so I don't want to interfere with their work. But I've been as engaged as I can be. I'm trying to understand the budget at a macro level and trying to make sure that we preserve as much of our academic excellence and programs as possible. I will tell you that one of the things that concerns me is that we do need to do double duty. We need to grow, we need to develop new programs, and we need to do it at the same time by increasing our efficiency, our productivity, and reducing our reliance on state funding. That might sound paradoxical but in fact, if we do it right, it is not.
Q: You mentioned before that public-private partnerships are a way to strengthen outside funding. What would be examples of that?
A: A large number of the research biotechnical centers are developed in partnership with industry. GMP facilities. Good manufacturing practice facilities are often created in partnership with pharmaceutical companies that are interested in these (potential drugs). The industry-academia partnerships have to be carefully crafted, particularly in today's environment where conflict of interest is examined closely, and rightfully so. So these partnerships have to be clear, transparent and mutually beneficial.
Q: What else are you considering?
A: Other opportunities to make up the deficit from state support while achieving growth at the institution is obviously to continue to look to our community regionally and nationally for philanthropic and gift-giving support. The continued conflict between the MCG Foundation and the school has been distracting from the basic purpose of the university in developing philanthropy. And while I don't have any personal statement at this point about that conflict, I do think it does not serve anybody well. And it certainly has been hurting the university and the community that benefits from its growth.
Q: Will you open up talks with MCG Foundation?
A: I think everything at this point is on the table.
Q: Have you spoken to former MCG President Daniel W. Rahn?
A: I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Rahn by telephone on more than one occasion. He has been extraordinarily helpful in his comments to me. He appears to genuinely care about MCG although he is no longer at the helm of the university. He was just helpful in his points of view. I think that Dr. Rahn did a number of wonderful things for this institution, helped propel it forward. But at this point, we just need to look forward to the challenges that are new. This is a new time for our country, a new period of introspection, of analysis. A new period where we need to understand what is going to make us successful. Solely being local, solely being American and solely being focused on who we were is not going to get us to who we will be.
Q: We talked before about the need to increase clinical and translational research at MCG. How do you do that?
A: MCG has a fantastic, truly fantastic, basic science research engine and has produced some incredible research findings. They've also been able to translate many of those research findings into improved patient care. But there is ample opportunity for us to continue to do that. To build translational research at MCG we will need to have facilities that will support translational research. For example, a clinical research building is one way. The other is to engage community partners in taking the research that is being done on campus to the community to understand how truly are our discoveries and our improvements affecting health in the real world.
Q: The president will also have control of the health system again under the structure being proposed by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, as it was before the creation of MCG Health Inc. more than 10 years ago. What do you think of that restructuring?
A: For MCG to grow and to succeed and to serve the community to a greater level than it has, it will need to be aligned. The economic pressures of today, the new health care reforms, the patients' needs, developing new technologies, and the increasing emphasis on clinical and translational research all require a carefully aligned, unified health care system of delivery and education. MCG as Georgia's health science university is uniquely positioned to move this agenda forward. To do that the Regents, in consultation with many of us, are crafting a system that will allow a one-leader, one-vision system to be put in place. This is not about the president's power because the president really is simply a steward of the entire system and all of its parts. But it does allow us to coordinate our efforts to focus on developing new discoveries, better health care and better education.
Q: You are also a very successful researcher. Will you be transferring your lab here?
A: I am very aware of the realities of the time commitment that a presidency will require. And so I am actually downsizing my laboratory significantly and focusing on a small area. We primarily will be focusing on the study of adipose tissue dysfunction or abnormalities of fat tissue. We're doing those studies in women but also will begin to extend it to all individuals.
Q: Obesity is a big problem in this area, as well as across the country. And that fat has more harmful effects than just the strain of carrying around a little extra weight, right?
A: The exciting thing about our research is we know that the fat tissue is the biggest hormone-producing organ in the body. It produces a great variety of substances that no other endocrine organ or hormonal organ in the body produces. The effect of those hormones is dramatic. They affect the vascular system, they affect our appetite, they affect our psychological state, they affect our ability to handle sugars and fats, they affect our ability to move, they affect our joints. And in fact we need to understand to a much greater degree the molecular effect and the clinical effect of fat in humans.