Dr. Danny Jacobs, the new dean of medicine and provost at the University of Texas Medical Branch, is a big listener; a surgeon who is connected to science through life and the land; and a self-proclaimed “country boy from Arkansas.” Jacobs spends his free time outdoors, fishing, or with his wife, Nancy, and their three grown children — when there is free time.
During his first six months in his new role, Jacobs’ schedule has been packed. With the construction of a new hospital building in Galveston and the expansion of the medical branch’s mainland presence, he has been conducting a “listening tour.” The tour includes visits with staff and leadership to shape a vision for the medical branch in today’s accelerating high-tech world of medicine.
“Trying to engage the community has been the most important part of my first six months,” Jacobs said. “We really can’t decide where we want to go until we know where we are.”
Jacobs developed an interest in science as a young teenager during and after the Space Race, when he attended a summer enrichment program for high school students in New Hampshire.
“I’m at this very luxurious private school, which looked like a college campus with many bright, shiny places and test tubes,” Jacobs said. “I said to myself, ‘This is it.’”
Jacobs attended a four-year, college preparatory high school in rural Vermont, founded in the early 1960s by Mac and Doris Conard. The Mountain School gave students a first-rate academic experience on a working farm.
“It was avant-garde, late ’60s, you know, thinking differently about ways to educate and inform, emphasizing community,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think my mother was wild about the idea of me going, because I was 13 at the time. I remember her kind of gritting her teeth.”
During his time at The Mountain School, Jacobs joined the camping group where he learned how “to survive in snow up to your navel,” he said.
The course in cold weather prepared Jacobs for his eventual move to Harvard for undergraduate work, and the subzero climes of Cambridge, where he also earned a master’s degree in public health.
“I didn’t consciously realize that I wanted to be a physician until I was a senior in college,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs went to school aspiring to be a behavioral scientist, but his natural abilities — and direction from a college adviser — led him to apply to medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned his medical degree. He went on to complete a surgical residency at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he served as chief resident.
Q: What do you think of Galveston and UTMB so far?
A: From day one, boots on the ground, I was really impressed by the people and I’m talking not just the folks that you interview with but just sort of walking around. Whenever I would go on one of these kinds of visits, I would take time to walk around, you know, without people knowing who I am, and see what they were doing. And, they were most gracious. It was almost disconcerting in a way, because people were so friendly. In New York, you might find a different response. So that was a big part of it. And, then, I guess the second most important thing was not only the people that are part of the campus on the front line, but the leadership is excellent. So, I was delighted to meet Dr. (David) Callender and Ms. (Donna) Sollenberger and Mr. (William) Elger. A to Z, there was a sense that people were trying to do great things here.
Q: What have you been up to since you got here?
A: I’ve spent a lot of time doing what I call my ‘listening tour,’ which is really trying to get out and meet the people. So that’s ranged from one-on-one to one-on-few, meetings with groups of faculty members to the leadership. I asked everyone that I could get in touch with to meet with me and tell me what the three greatest opportunities are for UTMB and what the three greatest challenges were. Once we had some rigor about defining the current reality we could, then, chart a more efficient path. And that’s a very deliberate process that requires a study of a lot of quantitative data, but also just listening to people.
Q: What have you heard?
A: The themes would be: folks want to make sure that we preserve what are the traditional reasons for academic health centers, so patient care is job one, but you’re a teaching hospital so education has to be up there as well. And, then, the desire or the need to be innovative. People talked about, and I agree with this wholeheartedly, maintaining UTMB’s strength in education. It’s nice to read that at least half of the providers in Texas come from UTMB.
Q: How will UTMB continue to be innovative in teaching?
A: The things we do in teaching have worked well for a very long time. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask the question: “How can we do it better?” Some of it deals with methodologies — how we teach. Not only do we need to think about the traditional — the School of Medicine teaches future doctors, the School of Nursing teaches future nurses — but how do we teach them to work as a team?
Q: What’s your vision for UTMB in 10 years and 20 years?
A: I think vision setting is an organic process. I may have any number of ideas that I have formed and they may be valid but irrelevant to what UTMB needs. That’s why I think the listening tour was so important. If we set a vision that no one agrees with, then nothing is going to happen. It really needs to be informed by the wisdom of the crowd.