A year ago, concerned about the tremendous demands of his job and potential problems with his multiple sclerosis, Medical College of Georgia President Francis J. Tedesco told University System of Georgia Chancellor Stephen Portch he might take early retirement if available.
Dr. Portch, however, said a search committee for Dr. Tedesco's successor could not be formed until this month because of the need to first transition the school's hospitals and clinics to a new operating company July 1. In the meantime, Dr. Portch had a consultant look at other forms of administering a medical school but concluded that no other model offered a surefire way to increase research funding.
Dr. Tedesco's decision to take early retirement in December and the seven-month delay in then appointing a search committee fueled speculation, gossip, rumor and innuendo in Augusta that the school might be made to answer to the University of Georgia in Athens. Adding to that was the enormous change coming with the early retirement program, which includes 712 people, among them Dr. Tedesco and three of the school's five deans. And moving the clinical operations to MCG Health meant enormously detailed negotiations on who worked for whom and what belonged to which organization.
All of these enormous changes played off one another.
Dr. Tedesco said he was diagnosed with MS in the early 1970s but has had only a few attacks over the ensuing years. MS is a disease of the central nervous system that can lie dormant and then suddenly attack with numbness in the limbs, paralysis or other debilitating flare-ups that can then subside again. After an attack two years ago, he started on medication and changed his schedule somewhat but still put in long days and never appeared to be affected.
"What I had to do is I had to always try to pace myself," Dr. Tedesco said. "I try to take at least one weekend day (off) with no commitments, but that's not always possible. If it ever impaired my ability to do my job, I would have given it up."
When the opportunity for early retirement came up, he mulled it over and decided to take it.
"With the increasing demands of the job, I thought that this would be a good time," Dr. Tedesco said. His announced departure came in the midst of ongoing efforts between the University of Georgia and MCG to collaborate more on research.
"In our thinking, when you have a situation where there's a change in leadership, (and) as we talked about how can we get the collaborative research engine cranked up, we certainly thought about other ways you could change that relationship administratively, which would enhance that," Dr. Portch said.
He asked consultant Jim Roth, of Arthur Andersen in Chicago, who works with academic health centers, to look at how research funding was enhanced at different schools. He looked at freestanding schools, such as MCG; at those on the campuses of larger universities; and at those that are separate physically but still report to the president of a university, Dr. Portch said.
Dr. Portch said he sat down with the consultant sometime in early spring to discuss the findings.
The consultant asked: "`Was there any pattern to those administrative models which resulted in increased research funding?' And the answer to that was, no, there is no pattern," Dr. Portch said. "Had there been a pattern, would we have had an exploration of different arrangements? Quite possibly."
The long lead time even after Dr. Tedesco's announcement in early December was a disadvantage to starting a search, said Dr. Portch, who is conducting his 21st presidential search as chancellor.
Given a lot of time "a search committee will take (that time)," Dr. Portch said, chuckling. "And the longer a search is, usually the worse it is; you lose candidates along the way. There's much to be said for an intense search, an aggressive search."
An even bigger impediment at the time was transferring operation of MCG's hospitals and clinics to MCG Health Inc., which was on a strict deadline to start July 1, the beginning of the state's fiscal year. Right up to the past two or three weeks, there were still enormous details such as insurance to be worked out, Dr. Portch said.
The presidential search could have begun a few months ago, Dr. Portch said, but the transition to MCG Health was heading into crunch time.
"Getting those two things, one completed and one under way at the same time, we did not think was wise," Dr. Portch said. "In my judgment we were better off to complete the transition to MCG Health Inc., put all our attention on getting that done successfully and then put all our attention on the search."
The transition to MCG Health, in fact, shapes the kind of candidate the committee now looks for, said Board of Regents member Thomas Allgood Sr. of Augusta, who is also chairman of MCG Health.
"You're looking for somebody who is outstanding in academics and won't need to have the administrative skills of the previous president" in running a clinical system, Mr. Allgood said.
The president of MCG serves on the board of MCG Health, and it will still be vitally important to the school, Dr. Tedesco said.
"It's one thing to just try to make an operation more efficient, but you have to make it more efficient without violating the reason they originally created you, and that's the educational mission," Dr. Tedesco said. "That truly is the learning laboratory. Not only that, but it will impact the ability of this state to have future health care providers. We are the biggest provider of Georgians who practice health care in this state."
Although the dramatic changes have worried many, Dr. Tedesco is optimistic.
"The fact of the matter is I still think it's an enormous opportunity, and I think they'll find that there are a lot of people who will find this job attractive," Dr. Tedesco said. "I have no concern about that at all."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.