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Web Exclusive: Dr. Susan Kelly: No Starry-Eyed Administrator

When trustees of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science named Dr. Susan Kelly president of the predominately Black institution last May, touting successful institutional turnarounds she affected both in the United States and abroad, howls of protest came from all corners of the community. Not only is Kelly a White native of Australia and the first woman to hold the post, she does not hold a medical degree.

However, despite the struggles of MLK/Drew Medical Center, the teaching hospital which shared with Drew a name and a history of substandard care for decades before ties were severed late last year, Kelly has overseen a full reaccreditation of the university. Once-vocal critics are now either silent or supportive, she says, as she attempts to keep the university afloat after the loss of its residency program.

“I am an optimist. I have been through tough times in many other institutions,” she says. “My colleague says ‘You came up through the concrete.’ That’s the kind of family I come from in a poor part of Tasmania, so it’s toughened me. I’m not starry-eyed or Pollyanna about how hard this is going to be, this is going to be very hard.”

Drew has awarded medical degrees through a partnership with UCLA, and has subsisted on a $12 million contract to provide healthcare services to Los Angeles County residents. But Kelly says it’s time for Drew to be independent.

“When I talk about us needing to stand on our own feet, separate from UCLA, separate from the county, people say, ‘You’re the first person who’s ever said that.’ And I said ‘well, we just can’t say it, we’ve got to do it. We may have to eat baked beans and sleep on the floor for a few years, but we are going to get there,’” she says.

And Kelly says she has every intention of continuing to lead Drew through its transformation. From her perspective, “there isn’t a better job for a person who wants to, when she finally turns up her toes, be able to say, ‘I made a difference.’”

—      David Pluviose

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