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The Catalyst

Providing stability in the interim, campus leader balances two key roles

By Mikie Hayes
Public Relations

MUSC Interim President Dr. Mark Sothmann greets students and faculty at the 2013 Student Government Association dinner Nov. 20. Photo by Anne Thompson, Digital Imaging

Often when a leader serves in an interim capacity, projects are shelved, decisions postponed and uncertainty about the future runs rampant as people hold their breath waiting for the new leader to come in and provide direction. That depiction couldn’t be further from the case at MUSC.

Academic health centers currently face great challenges. The impact of the Affordable Care Act, caps in tuition and the increasing competition to secure funding all contribute to the present vulnerability academic health centers throughout the country are feeling. During such a critical time, rarely is it optimal to have a vacancy in the senior-most leadership position. MUSC, however, is fortunate that it remains firmly in capable hands during its leadership transition as interim president and provost, Mark Sothmann, Ph.D., mans the helm.

A seasoned provost and former dean, Sothmann brings vision, confidence, approachability and compassion to the interim position. While the Medical University continues its search for a new president, Sothmann presses on planning for the future, addressing present challenges and moving important initiatives forward.

A member of MUSC’s leadership team, Sothmann has been integrally involved at the highest level of decision making, strategic planning and problem solving since 2011. His bird’s–eye view, coupled with strong senior leadership by his side, allows him to focus on preserving a sound foundation while being proactive in meeting the challenges of the ever-changing health care environment.

“An academic medical center cannot simply be ‘maintained’ during such critical times.  They are either moving forward or falling behind. At this time of monumental change in America’s health care environment, MUSC’s mission and people could not be more critical. Every day, our students, faculty and staff are rising to the challenges that are presented to us,” Sothmann said.

Dual service roles
Serving in the dual capacities of interim president as well as fully meeting the demands of his own job, vice president for Academic Affairs and provost, Sothmann’s plate is inordinately full, and yet, he credits others: “Everyone has a great deal on their plates right now, he explains. I am fortunate to have a lot of help from an extraordinarily strong leadership team at MUSC. If there is something that I feel someone else can do, I just pick up the phone and call them. So far, I haven’t had anyone turn me down.” And though his current workload is demanding, recruiting an interim provost to help during this crunch time would not have been particularly helpful, according to Sothmann.

“I just never thought that bringing an interim provost in, given that I’m hoping we have the president in the seat by July – that’s my hope – was a good idea,” he said.  “To bring somebody in from the outside for what would essentially be a year, and it takes a year just to get up to speed, I’m not sure that would have not been much help especially with the complexities.”

While addressing the complexities related to ongoing initiatives, Sothmann is focused on balancing the priorities of today with the possibilities of tomorrow and meeting the goal of “Changing What’s Possible.”  “What we do now will impact the future. Obviously the first priority is to find the new president who will determine the course for the remainder of 2014 and beyond,” he said. “I’m sure that person will take a period of time to do a thorough assessment, but during that time, we still have numerous major initiatives that we need to complete and be successful in.”

On July 10, 2013, the MUSC board of trustees unanimously appointed Sothmann as interim president for the Medical University, and he assumed the post the following month. Thomas Stephenson, chairman of the MUSC board of trustees, said the board felt it was imperative to maintain a sense of continuity for the university during the search for the next president. Ensuring nothing languishes during this period of transition, Sothmann and his leadership team continue to steadily advance initiatives that are critical to the success of the institution.

“This year, Hollings Cancer Center submitted a renewal of their National Cancer Center designation, and in my opinion, it was a very successful submission,” he explained. “That was key for this campus to accomplish and we’re still waiting to hear. We also have coming up a Clinical and Translational Science Award submission and that is another crown jewel for the university that we should be successful in. Substantial decisions have been made in the delivery of the clinical enterprise to position us for the future. We also have some recruitment that we need to solidify in areas such as biomedical informatics and college deans. Additionally, the colleges have their own strategic initiatives that they are engaged in that we need as a campus to continue to move forward. So there is a lot that is happening here.”

For academic health centers throughout the country, there are areas of concern that must be addressed in the new health care environment to ensure their future survival. Sothmann believes President Obama’s Affordable Care Act will be one of the most fundamental discussions that MUSC will have toward that end.

“As we get further into 2104,” he said, “there is no question in my mind that we are going to be talking about how this campus reacts to the Affordable Care Act and what that means for both the clinical side and the academic side of the university, because all of that is going to impact both sides. There will be programs that will likely be modified, but there is no specific agenda. As interim president and provost, my role is to work with the deans, and other leaders, as best I can to facilitate their vision of where they want to take their aspects of the university and how I can help us achieve a coordinated effort that advances the strategic positioning of the university for the future.”

Opportunities for the future
As leaders concentrate on ways to increase revenues across the institution, the academic side presents many opportunities for growth and reshaping. Expanding academic offerings in an effort to best prepare health care providers for the future while increasing the number of students presently enrolled are two priorities being explored.

Sothmann said, “I’m not sure MUSC can stay with 2,800 students. We are going to have to figure out ways to expand our academic offerings. It has to be done strategically and within our mission. We’ve been at 2,800 for a long time and we can’t continue to be the institution we want to be without figuring that out. We’ve had two retreats in the last six months about online learning and what that means for MUSC. We have a strategic task force that is examining that so that conversation will go into the future. It will be something that will take some resources and take some thought with respect to how we’re going to do this, but there’s no question in my mind that the online capability is going to impact MUSC.

“Part of the limitation in growth,” he continued, “is bricks and mortar because you can only put so many students in a seat. Over the next three to five years, which is a transformational period, we need to think of new models.”

In terms of changes on the horizon for MUSC, Sothmann explained that its mission to train health care providers and deliver care will never change. He also believes that the fact that health care accounts for 17 percent of America’s gross domestic product presents opportunities that MUSC has not yet realized, especially as it pertains to new degree programs. MUSC will need to determine what those relevant degrees are and build those new programs, while at the same time remaining on the frontline of relevant aspects of the new health care environment that are just beginning to be discussed.

Medical universities have long been accustomed to supporting their stated missions with revenues generated from various productive enterprises. In three decades in higher education and academic health centers, Sothmann has never before seen traditional funding for education, research and clinical care so challenged, but at the same time he believes new opportunities can emerge. “This creates a balancing act we have to deal with over the course of the next three years. The next three years for the future of MUSC are going to be critical,” he said.

Helping MUSC thrive in a new environment

While the university continues on a national search for a new president, Sothmann and his leadership team have every intention of meeting the future head-on and doing what it takes to thrive in this new environment. “I think what’s going to happen is, around the country, you’re going to see a bifurcation of both universities and academic health centers and those who are able to thrive in the new environment and those who are not able to. There are a lot of people here who are working very hard to ensure that we thrive, and I think there will be a point at which we will see some separation occur.”

Recently, Robert Tercek, a consultant for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, asserted that Charleston – relative to its competitors – needs its own comprehensive research university to improve education and attract industry to this region. Much discussion surrounds the possibility that the South Carolina Legislature is moving to merge MUSC and the College of Charleston in an effort to create a comprehensive research university. “What we’re doing right now is ferreting through all this. We’ve had meetings with the college and combined meetings with the college and the Chamber of Commerce. Our boards of trustees have been talking and legislators are talking about it. Where it will end up at this point, I don’t know, but nobody loses with conversation,” said Sothmann.

Through seven years at MUSC serving as dean of the College of Health Professions, provost and now interim president, Sothmann has developed a deep affinity for the people of MUSC. “MUSC is a very, very fine institution and extremely collegial,” he said. “In many ways it’s a gem for South Carolina and the region. We are big enough for people to be able to do what they need to get done, but small enough for people to know each other. There’s a sense of community here that some of the larger institutions don’t have. We know each other and see each other walking around the campus and at meetings. In the end, MUSC is about its people."

While presently the seas ofhealth care may be turbulent, with Mark Sothmann at MUSC’s helm, MUSC can rest assured that its ships is steady indeed.

January 17, 2014

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