Penn official ready to run Rutgers medical schools

Brian L. Strom, executive vice dean at Perelman School of Medicine, sees new job as "extraordinarily exciting."
Brian L. Strom, executive vice dean at Perelman School of Medicine, sees new job as "extraordinarily exciting." (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 25, 2013

Brian L. Strom is having trouble sleeping.

Not just because the physician - currently executive vice dean for institutional affairs at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine - soon will give up teaching, his primary care practice, and the research that has brought him national recognition.

No, Strom said, he is kept up nights with anticipation. In December, Strom will join Rutgers University as chancellor of its newly created Biomedical and Health Sciences umbrella organization, overseeing 14 schools and units, including pieces of the defunct University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

"My role will be to oversee them. The deans of these schools will be reporting to me. Overseeing budgets, overseeing promotions, overseeing quality control," Strom said. "The real goal, though, is really to build Rutgers into a biomedical powerhouse."

In an interview last week, Strom described his new role as "extraordinarily exciting" because of the circumstances.

Having officially absorbed most of what was UMDNJ on July 1, Rutgers now has a number of related schools scattered across the state, including three nursing schools, two medical schools, and schools of pharmacy, dental medicine, and public health.

Under the new Biomedical and Health Sciences division, those nine schools and an additional five units now include 2,689 faculty members, 8,628 staff, and nearly 8,000 students.

Strom will oversee almost all of them.

"It's really the hardest thing to do in changing an institution, is to get people to accept change," Strom said. "And in this case, it's done for us, because basically the reorganization blew it up, and it's up to us to put it back together in whatever shape we want."

Working amid a complex administrative bureaucracy is a skill Strom has learned over many years at Penn, he said.

In 1993, Strom established the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics; he also helped found the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology. When he stepped down as director of the center in March 2012, the number of faculty had grown to 175 from six.

"Brian is an extraordinarily creative administrator, a program builder who I think combines the ability to understand the big picture and build big programs, but also has a superb ability to understand the needs of individuals who are working with him and under him and how to support and promote their career development," said Harold Feldman, who has stepped in as interim director of the center at Penn since Strom stepped down.

Feldman, who has known Strom for more than 25 years, beginning when Strom was designated as his mentor in graduate school at Penn, said Strom is the right person for the Rutgers job: "The challenge of knitting together the pieces . . . will require someone who really revels in this building, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts."

Strom is a clinical pharmacologist by training, studying the effects of drugs in real-world practice, as well as an epidemiologist, studying health and disease in populations. After 33 years at Penn, he said, he is particularly proud of his efforts to bring together disciplines. The epidemiology program is now nationally recognized, in part because of what he described as a "new way of doing population medicine."

"I get my hands in a lot of areas. And really, in many ways, the hallmark of my career has been this bridging," Strom said. "Clinical epidemiology is a bridging field, it bridges between clinical medicine and epidemiology. . . . I developed a program that bridged epidemiology and biostatistics, which are different fields."

When he starts at Rutgers in December, Strom said, he hopes to spend time learning, from faculty, about each school's strengths and weaknesses.

"There's a lot of nitty gritty, but also we want over that first year to set the vision for the years to go forward . . . largely, that vision's going to come from the faculty," he said.

A universitywide "strategic planning initiative" is underway and scheduled to be complete by the time Strom begins, but he also plans to do his own internal assessment and planning within the division.

Strom demurred on specific ideas for the various programs that will fall under his purview, citing his lack of familiarity. Plus, he said, he's been so eager that "certainly I've already been accused of governing by e-mail."

At 63, Strom said he's not planning to retire any time soon. His initial appointment is for five years, at $675,000 a year, with the option to renew his contract.

He plans to renew, he said. Maybe more than once.

"I'm physically healthy, I'm mentally young, I'm hyper," he said, laughing as he described his wife telling his financial planner that he will never retire. "We do these careers because we love them, not because we need it to eat. So I don't envision stepping down from these roles. This is not an overnight task."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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