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Leaving a Legacy

Leaving a Legacy
Dr. Donald Wilson leaves a much improved UMD med school after serving 15 years as dean.

By Ibram Rogers

Shortly after Dr. Donald Wilson became dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1991, making him the nation’s first African-American to lead a predominantly White medical school, he began sharing his objectives with students.

During one meeting, his medical students told him he was stressing research funding too much. Wilson’s response: “Name for me the top five medical schools in the United States.” They did.

Then, Wilson said: “Now name for me the schools with the top research funding in the United States.” The two lists were the same, proving Wilson’s point. That was the juncture at which the culture of the school began to change.

Over the past 15 years, Wilson has transformed this public medical school into, arguably, one of the finest in the country by bringing in more research dollars and more faculty and students of color. But Wilson, currently the fourth longest-serving medical school dean in the country, will be stepping down Sept. 1.

“I am so proud of the significant growth and accomplishments that the School of Medicine has made while I have been here,” he says.

The veteran administrator cites his desire to spend more time with his family and concerns about his health as his primary motivations for leaving the university. Wilson received a kidney transplant in December.

“Although I have recovered significantly from my illness and surgery, I have not regained the energy that sustained me through the first 14 years of my deanship,” he says. “I cannot, in good conscience, continue without the ability to give 100 percent of my focus and energy to this demanding and important position.”

Wilson usually worked between 80 and 90 hours per week, a schedule he cannot continue without affecting his health, he says.

That intense work ethic is one of the many reasons why, under his leadership, the school’s research funding has soared from $77 million in 1991 to $341 million in 2005. Also, revenue increased from $190 million in 1991 to $624 million in 2005. With that funding, the school has completed two state-of-the-art biomedical research buildings on its Baltimore campus. Wilson has also created three new departments, six organized research centers and four programs. The school student body has also become one of the most diverse in the country and its number of faculty of color has more than doubled, from 3.5 percent in 1992 to 7.1 percent in 2005.

“His commitment to education, research and service is unparalleled, and he will continue to have a significant impact long after he retires,” says University of Maryland President David J. Ramsay.

A native of Worcester, Mass., Wilson earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard University before receiving a medical degree from Tufts University in 1962. He was named chief of gastroenterology at the University of Illinois in 1971 and was the youngest full professor in the history of UI’s medical school. Wilson came to UMD after a decade-long stretch as a professor, department chairman and/or physician-in-chief at a number of medical schools and centers in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“There were a lot of folks who would have been overjoyed if somehow I had failed in this job,” Wilson says about being the university’s first African-American in the position. “There are folks who were not very hospitable to me when I arrived, some of whom have become very strong supporters, others of whom still aren’t hosp-itable.”

In 2004, he served as chairman of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the umbrella association of medical schools and more than 400 teaching hospitals. Prior to that, Wilson was chairman of the influential AAMC’s Council of Deans. And he co-founded the Association for Academic Minority Physicians in 1986.

“Dr. Wilson was the right man at the right time for our medical school,” says University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. “His vision led the University of Maryland School of Medicine into the top echelon of American medical schools. That is a legacy a privileged few can boast.”

UMD has already named Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and dean of the university’s college of medicine, as Wilson’s successor. Reece is also Black. 

After Wilson’s tenure is up, he says he’s going to hang around the school for about six months to put the final touches on a new academic program that focuses on minority health issues and health disparities.
“I just want to make sure that it is humming along smoothly,” he says. “And then probably some time next year, I will fade away from the medical school scene.”

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