Meharry’s Persistence Pays Off

When Meharry Medical College launched its search for a new president, the search committee refused to drop Dr. Wayne Riley from the list of more than 100 prospects, despite Riley’s repeated insistence — in phone conversations and written correspondence — that he did not want the job.

Riley had everything Meharry wanted to take it to the next level. The New Orleans native was politically savvy, having worked for five years alongside the late Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the first Black mayor of New Orleans. Riley had four degrees, from Morehouse, Rice, Tulane and Yale universities, with an M.D. and MBA in the mix. He had loads of practical experience on the front lines of delivering and improving health care for the poor and underserved, most recently working in Houston with Hurricane Katrina evacuees. To boot, his father, the late Dr. Emile Riley Jr., was a 1960 Meharry grad.

Meharry’s persistence paid off.

“This particular place, at this particular time in history, is the right place for me,” Riley, 48, told Diverse about his new capacity as president and CEO of Meharry. “In a spiritual sense, after a lot of reflection, prayer, talking with people around the country, I offered myself to Meharry.”

Riley, who took office Jan. 1, was officially inaugurated last month at a major ceremony held in the city’s new Schermerhorn Symphony Center. As a testament to the city’s enthusiasm for the school’s new leader, the event was attended by some 1,800 people, including the governor, mayor, top business movers and shakers from around the region, and education, religious and civic leaders from around the nation. It was one of the most impressive events staged in the city in years and generated a quarter of a million dollars for the school’s scholarship fund after expenses, school officials say.

“He is an outstanding young visionary,” says Dr. Nelson Adams, a Miami physician and Meharry graduate who is president of the National Medical Association, the professional trade group of Black physicians in America. “He’s the right person at the right time for Meharry,” says Adams, echoing the sentiments of others.

 “He’s young, vibrant, learned and energetic,” says Dr. T.B. Boyd III, who has been a member of the Meharry Board of Trustees for 25 years. “Everything he’s undertaken so far has been successful and on a first-class level.”

With a stellar track record of performance behind him and high expectations ahead, Riley, who came to Meharry from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has had what he calls an “aggressive” 10 months as Meharry’s 10th president.

Less than two weeks after his official start, he inked a five-year labor contract with the school’s service employees, ending an 18- month stalemate he politely attributed to too many lawyers in the mix. He has installed a small management team of skilled go-getters, nearly all of them from outside the school’s ranks. Becoming a familiar face all over the city, he has met with the local newspaper, the governor, legislative Black Caucus and traveled to Washington. As important, he’s an ever-present face around the campus, making what employees call “rally” rounds.

“It was important to get around and get Meharry known,” says Riley. “It’s amazing to me that, in 2007, even people in Nashville don’t know about Meharry and its contributions.”

As for visiting Washington on a regular basis, he quickly points out that Meharry relies heavily on federal and state grants, which this year account for 40 percent of the school’s $127 million budget.

“I have a whole lot of grateful patients, but not a whole lot of wealthy, grateful patients,” Riley observes.

All these steps were the right ones for Riley to take early on and more will be required, many interviewed say. They say Riley’s top job will be building on the school’s $102 million endowment and enhancing Meharry’s brand name in a market for students it nearly monopolized in the era of racial segregation. Adams calls it Meharry’s “ongoing challenge of relevance.”

Before the walls of legalized segregation began to fall in the 1960s, Meharry educated nearly half of the nation’s Black physicians and dentists and trained them at its Hubbard Hospital teaching facility. In the post-segregation era, opportunities for aspiring Black doctors and dentists have significantly broadened to the point that the school now graduates about 25 percent of the nation’s Black doctors and dentists.

Meanwhile, it closed Hubbard Hospital after years of seeing it decline with a $40 million-plus deficit. That deficit was wiped out by Riley’s predecessor, Dr. John Maupin, who handed Riley the $102 million endowment, a stabilized student enrollment of just over 750 students and solid political connections dating back to Maupin’s predecessor, former Surgeon General David Satcher.

Riley understands his place in Meharry’s history and what he needs to do to help it sustain its long-term commitment of producing doctors and dentists who will dedicate themselves to providing and improving health care for the poor and underserved.

“Sometimes you get the delusion the world began when you started,” Riley says, ticking off the accomplishments of each of his predecessors in a gesture of honor. “My job is to build on it, tell the Meharry story incessantly and articulately.”

–Reginald Stuart

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