UI-Carle medical school up for Academic Senate vote

UI-Carle medical school up for Academic Senate vote

URBANA — University of Illinois researcher Neal Cohen brings in grants worth millions of dollars to design tests used worldwide for patients with amnesia, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and brain injuries.

Yet almost none of the patients he has studied are in Champaign-Urbana.

With no academic medical center in town, his team works with doctors and patients at medical schools at the University of Iowa, Washington University, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Rush Medical College in Chicago.

"Much of the grant money I've obtained, much of the opportunity to train medical students and interns and residents about memory and amnesia, and much of the opportunity to apply what we've learned about memory and amnesia to help patients in the local community have gone to those other institutions," he said.

Cohen, director of the UI's new Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Initiative, is among the professors campaigning for a new engineering-focused medical school at the Urbana campus, developed in partnership with Carle Health System.

The campus Academic Senate is scheduled to vote on the proposal when it meets at 3:10 p.m. today, in what would be the first formal step toward approval for the plan.

The senate will also consider several items dealing with fallout from the Steven Salaita case, ranging from revamped hiring procedures to a proposal to reconsider the embattled professor's appointment, as the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure recommended in December.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise proposed a small, engineering-focused medical school last year that would be independently accredited and use no state funding. The current medical school here is a regional campus of the College of Medicine at UI Chicago.

In November, UI trustees reviewed Wise's plan and an alternative proposal from the Chicago campus, which called for expanding the medical school curriculum and establishing a bioengineering institute. The board directed UI President Robert Easter to consider both plans and present a recommendation at the March meeting.

Easter said last month it's clear there's a need for "greater clinical involvement and opportunities" for the Urbana medical school but didn't state a preference for either plan.

The campus senate gave its preliminary endorsement in September, pending development of business, governance and curriculum plans. The major components have since been outlined, but a formal budget, curriculum and governance structure can't move ahead until the college has been formally established, the resolution says.

The senate's Educational Policy Committee unanimously approved the proposal last month. Its report says the entire campus would benefit from the presence of a college of medicine.

"All of the top ten medical schools in the country already partner with College of Engineering faculty members at the Urbana campus in joint research projects," the report says.

The senate Budget Committee concurred, provided that the college does not use state general revenue or divert money from other colleges, and generates enough revenue to cover its expenses.

As planned, the school would have a core of 23 new faculty members, 20 of them in engineering or science and three physicians. Another 40 to 50 physicians would be hired by Carle and have partial appointments at the college. The college would also draw from the 440 physicians currently employed by Carle, which plans to recruit 100 more over the next five years, said Dr. Joseph Barkmeier, a Carle radiologist and medical director for system strategic development.

Carle has pledged more than $100 million for the college over the first 10 years.

Barkmeier told senators last week that Carle already has physicians doing research and hopes to recruit more.

"There's a lot of excitement with people we're recruiting, when they find out we're trying to start a new college of medicine. It really helps to attract a much higher level of physician. They want to teach, they want to do research," he said.

Bioengineering Professor Rohit Bhargava said the medical school would greatly enhance the work of an interdisciplinary group of 75 cancer researchers on campus.

Bhargava, who received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health last fall, devises new methods of infrared microscopy to detect cancer and determine which cases are dangerous. By combining a structural and molecular "snapshot" of a tumor, scientists can tell, for example, which prostate cancers are lethal and need treatment, he said.

"There's nothing we can do with it just sitting in our lab. We need colleagues, we need medical practitioners who want to use this, who want to take this and benefit patients in some way," he said.

Bhargava works with physicians at the UI Chicago, NIH, Yale, "everywhere in the world except in Urbana-Champaign. We hope that this college will change that."

The UI's strengths in engineering, technology, social sciences and health research make it "uniquely positioned" to be a leader in the fight against cancer, Bhargava said.

"The big medical centers tend to be quite insular. What we have here is the chance to involve the entire community," he said.

Cohen said the new medical school would allow his team to identify patients with memory disorders and monitor and improve their functioning "in our own community."

With the new interdisciplinary health institute and college of medicine, "We aim to change the face of the health sciences and the conduct of medicine," Cohen said.

The campus had originally hoped to hire a dean this year and have the medical school admit its first class in fall 2017, but the timeline now is uncertain. If approved today, Provost Ilesanmi Adesida said the proposal would still need approval from the University Senates Conference, top administrators, UI trustees and the Illinois Board of Higher Education, with a dean hired perhaps next year under the most optimistic scenario.

"This is just the beginning," he said.