UI-Chicago comes forward with rival med-school proposal

UI-Chicago comes forward with rival med-school proposal

A plan for a new engineering-based college of medicine at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus has prompted a competing proposal from the UI College of Medicine in Chicago, and it goes something like, "We've got this."

Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Dr. James Leonard, president and CEO of Carle Health Systems, presented their blueprint for a new medical school fusing engineering, computing, health sciences and medicine to a UI trustees committee Wednesday.

The Urbana medical school would be independent of the existing College of Medicine headquartered in Chicago, which includes regional campuses in Peoria, Rockford and Urbana. As designed, it would require no state funding and wouldn't take money from other university programs, relying instead on support from Carle and other private investors, tuition, clinical revenue, grants, philanthropy and licensing income from research.

The three trustees on the committee stopped short of formally endorsing the Urbana proposal, as Wise had requested, saying they'd like to see a formal business plan first. But they raised no serious objections and suggested that officials continue to develop a business plan, which will be presented to trustees in November.

Afterward, Leonard and Wise said they were happy to get a "green light" from the committee to proceed.

"We have the opportunity to design a new paradigm for medical education, research and health care from the ground up," Wise told the committee.

Following that presentation, Chicago campus administrators offered an ambitious alternative that would work with the existing College of Medicine framework. It suggests creating a new "Translational BioEngineering Insitute" with the College of Engineering at Urbana to promote biomedical research and economic development, in lieu of a new college of medicine.

As described by College of Medicine Dean Dmitri Azar, it would also integrate engineering and technology into the college's medical training, building on its strengths in those areas; redefine the role of the Urbana regional medical campus as a "regional center of excellence" and expand M.D.-Ph.D. programs; and forge new clinical partnerships with Carle, Presence and other health systems.

Azar said the opportunity for a bioengineering medical school track should be open to all 1,351 medical students in the college, not just the 25 to 50 a year proposed for a new Urbana medical school. And he said the economic benefits of increased biomedical research would be much greater if the full college were involved. Using the current structure would also avoid startup costs and any accreditation hurdles, Azar said.

"We don't want to duplicate intellectual programs and capital," said Chicago Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares. "Do we need two colleges of medicine within the University of Illinois?"

But Wise and Leonard questioned how the Chicago proposal would be funded, which wasn't addressed Wednesday.

The college has "never been able to invest in us in the past to be able to do this. If he could really do it, it's hard to understand why he hasn't done it so far," Wise said.

Carle is prepared to make a substantial investment in the Urbana proposal — "upwards of $100 million," Leonard said — but neither he nor Wise was interested in the broader plans outlined by the Chicago campus.

Leonard's answer was a flat, "No."

"It is a very interesting, humongous, broad-based proposal," Leonard said. "It's just, why today? I don't see how it happens.

"We're very interested in making this move ahead on a measurable, real basis. I think ours is very focused, very doable," Leonard said.

The Chicago proposal also doesn't address a driving force behind the effort — Urbana's limited access to millions of dollars of research funding from the National Institutes of Health, which often requires access to patients for clinical trials of new medicines or devices, Wise said.

Last year alone, she said, three faculty members in bioengineering moved to other universities because they wanted to be on a campus with a full college of medicine, and four other recruits passed on the UI for the same reason.

The Urbana campus had tried for decades, and intensively for the past three years, to work out a more collaborative arrangement between Urbana researchers and medical school faculty in Chicago with little success, Wise said.

"We've had 43 years. Since 1971, we've been exploring how you can make this organizational structure work. It doesn't, for several reasons," Wise said. "They are big. We really want to focus. They are 150 miles away. Collaborations do depend in some sense on distance."

Even when the campuses have shared faculty appointments, the arrangement is awkward, with duplicative governance, promotion and tenure processes, she said. One top engineering researcher left for Harvard because it was too cumbersome, Wise said.

Wise said the new medical college would be a "complement" to the existing medical college in Chicago, with its physician scientists "bridging the gap" between engineers and clinicians.

UI President Bob Easter said he asked the College of Medicine how it might provide better opportunities for collaboration with Urbana.

"The alternative is a separate medical school," Easter said. "At this point, it's still a conversation. ... There's a lot yet to be worked out."

"My goal is what's best for the University of Illinois comprehensively, to provide the best opportunities for our faculty" and continue to train the next generation of doctors and health sciences professionals while promoting economic development, he said.

Leonard said it will take time for the university and Carle to work through the details of creating a new college and forging a partnership to govern the medical school.

The proposal is expected to be reviewed this fall by the campus academic senate, a necessary step before trustees can issue final approval.


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