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Dr. A. Eugene Washington to lead UCLA Health Sciences

Photo by Elisabeth Fall.
Photo by Elisabeth Fall.
Dr. A. Eugene Washington, an internationally renowned clinical investigator and health policy scholar whose wide-ranging research has been instrumental in shaping national health policy and practice guidelines, will join UCLA Feb. 1 as vice chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine.
 
Washington said he was thrilled when he learned he’d gotten the job. “The reaction was elation, exclamation point,” he said in a phone interview. “I am honored that I am being trusted by the UCLA leadership and the selection committee to lead this great institution at this critical time.”
 
Known for his charismatic leadership style, Washington comes to UCLA after a long and distinguished career at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), where he has served since 2004 as executive vice chancellor, provost and professor of gynecology, epidemiology and health policy.
 
A 1976 graduate of the UCSF School of Medicine, Washington completed graduate studies at both UC Berkeley and Harvard schools of public health and residency training at Stanford University. He worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before joining the faculty at UCSF, where he co-founded the Medical Effectiveness Research Center for Diverse Populations. He also co-founded the UCSF-Stanford Evidence-based Practice Center and, from 1996 to 2004, chaired the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences.
 
Washington has amassed a slew of honors and awards: He is the UCSF School of Medicine 1999 Alumnus of the Year, the highest honor awarded by the Alumni-Faculty Association. The UCSF Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 2002, recognizing his extraordinary efforts to promote campus diversity. Induction into the Gold-Headed Cane Society in 2006, for his significant scholarly achievements.The Outstanding Service Medal from the U.S. Public Health Service. And election to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences, where he serves on the governing Council of IOM. He also serves on the boards of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation, Common Sense Media, the California HealthCare Foundation and the Congressionally-mandated Scientific Management Review Board of the National Institutes of Health.
 
Encouraging, supportive … and funny
 
Washington's colleagues and peers have nothing but good things to say about him: He’s encouraging and supportive. He’s collaborative and hands-off, but deftly hands-on when indicated. He loves mentoring medical students, residents, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty — deeply committed to nurturing their professional development.
 
What’s more, he’s inspiring. He’s funny.
 
“He is an extraordinarily personable person,” said Dr. Elena Fuentes-Afflick, vice chair of the UCSF Department of Pediatrics and chair of the Academic Senate. She first met Washington in 1994, when she was a junior faculty member, and he graciously volunteered to mentor her. “He loves meeting people, working with people. He has this way of bringing out the best in people. He conveys the confidence that you have the skills and experience to do the job that needs to be done.”
 
Over the last 15 years, Dr. Nancy Adler, vice chair of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and director of the Center for Health and Community, has worked with Washington on a variety of projects.
 
“He has a capacity to see things in innovative ways and to get people to work together to do things," Adler said. "He’s really a consensus builder. Sometimes that can be waffly, but his capacity to have a strong vision and bring people along to share in it, rather than impose it on them, is what characterizes him.”
 
A passion for health care
 
Washington views his UCLA appointment as “an outstanding fit, given my interests and experiences and from the perspective of it providing me a new challenge.”
 
Nobel Prize laureate Dr. J. Michael Bishop, who led UCSF as chancellor through August 2009, said of him, “He has a real passion for health care. He’s well-known nationally… and has served in very substantial positions internationally. At the same time, he blends that with a very deep and sophisticated knowledge of the academic mission of UCLA. I can’t imagine a more perfect fit, both as a scholar and a very sophisticated health care expert.”
 
In his new role as dean and vice chancellor, Washington intends to build on UCLA’s success in educating the next generation for practicing medicine of the future, creating new knowledge through vigorous investigation, delivering health care of the highest quality and providing public service that improves the state of communities. He noted that he is particularly interested in improving quality of life for faculty, staff and trainees, fostering innovation and collaboration across campus, enhancing organizational performance and garnering new resources, and strengthening and expanding partnerships. 
 
A native of Houston, Texas, Washington’s view of medicine as a social force for good stemmed from his upbringing. The youngest of five, he grew up in a “very nurturing community.” His father was a minister, his mother a homemaker, and they instilled in Washington the values he cherishes and lives by today. 
 
“The two influences that have shaped my life are high expectations that I would excel in school and even higher expectations that I would use my education to excel in public service with the aim of improving the lives of others,” he said.
 
His deep commitment to research across the  health sciences — he has published extensively in his major areas of research, which include prenatal genetic testing, cervical cancer screening and prevention, noncancerous uterine conditions management, reproductive tract infections, quality of health care and racial/ethnic disparities in health outcomes — will resonate at UCLA, one of the world’s leading research universities.
 
“He has always been supportive of excellence in research within both the UCSF and broader research communities,” noted UCSF’s Elizabeth Blackburn, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the Morris Herztein Professor of Biology and Physiology in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.
 
Part of what excites Washington about coming to UCLA is its international presence and ability to shape the future of health and science. “I see that I’m joining and leading an organization with exceptional assets for deepening its impact on the health of local communities as well as improving health nationally and globally," he said.
 
An experienced problem solver
 
“Gene brings an extraordinary combination of skills that he will adapt,” said Fuentes-Afflick. “He hasn’t been at UCLA, but he knows a lot about the UC system. Times like this, it will be helpful to have someone who understands the structure of it and the strengths, but also the limitations.”
 
At UCSF, Washington was a noted problem solver. In 2005, he co-chaired the development of the university’s first-ever, campus-wide strategic plan.

“As chancellor,” recalled Bishop, “I spent the first five years of my 11-year tenure getting us to mount a strategic planning process. When Gene took office, I found my man.”
 
The  two-year process engaged thousands of faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members and other campus stakeholders.
 
Blackburn, who served with him on the Strategic Planning Board, recalled, “He was a superb chair — showing great leadership through his inclusiveness and vision.”
 
“Gene drove that process relentlessly,” said Bishop. “This was a big deal; 19,000 employees, a $3-billion budget institution, which for the first time in its history had an explicit mission statement and 42 priorities arranged by the leadership. It’s a model of its kind, and Gene made it happen.”
 
The resulting plan clearly articulated strategic directions for fulfilling UCSF’s mission of advancing health worldwide, from translating research discoveries into improved health to nurturing diversity and promoting a supportive work environment.
 
To listen, observe and understand
 
Asked if he plans to launch a similar effort at UCLA, Washington said he first has to do his homework. “My highest priority is to engage the UCLA community in the broadest sense imaginable. I will be spending time on campus and off campus, meeting with the many diverse constituents connected to our dynamic health sciences enterprise. I will be listening and observing and attempting to understand more clearly our opportunities and needs.”
 
Washington sees many similarities between UCSF and his new campus home. Besides strong community support and partnerships with other institutions, both also have “just exceptional people who are not only remarkably talented, but unfailingly committed to higher calls of improving human health, their institutions and their disciplines. I firmly believe that it’s people that make great institutions.”
 
Despite the financial pressures facing the UC system, both campuses share another quality: an unshakable determination to be better. “I particularly noticed this at UCLA,” said Washington. “The question is not just, 'How do we sustain our current level of excellence and achievement?' but 'How do we elevate ourselves to the next level?'”
 
Still, for all his wonderful qualities, Washington does have one trait that some might be tempted to label a flaw: He is universally known as an extremely nice person.
 
“I think sometimes he doesn’t get enough credit because he’s so nice,” said Adler, who recalled seeing Washington calmly take over a chaotic meeting in Washington, D.C., when the chair had a meltdown. “By being nice, you’re [often viewed as] not decisive. That’s absolutely wrong. He’s decisive and visionary, and gets it done in a much more collaborative way.” 
 
“He’s got personal qualities that make for a fine leader,” said Bishop. “He’s extremely gracious and affable, has a heart of gold, a backbone of steel. He’s a very highly respected, beloved individual.
 
“The bottom line,” said Bishop, “is UCLA is damn lucky to get him.”