James Woolliscroft

A Dean's Vision

James Woolliscroft reflects on nearly a decade as dean of the U-M Medical School, as he steps down to join the school’s faculty

By Sara Talpos

Fall-Winter 2015
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Growing up surrounded by lakes in Alexandria, Minnesota, a young James Woolliscroft was shaped by his early encounters with the natural world. He collected butterflies. He fished. “I remember dissecting the fish, opening them up, seeing what they had eaten,” recalls the Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine and 16th dean of the University of Michigan Medical School. Those fish stomachs — revealing crayfish, minnows, insects — offered an early glimpse into the surprises of the biological sciences.

Woolliscroft also developed an early interest in education and mentoring, thanks in part to excellent teachers. He cites, in particular, a calculus teacher, as well as an orchestra teacher who started a small string group called the Rainbow Strings, for which Woolliscroft played the violin. The group performed throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas, giving students an opportunity to develop confidence while performing and to understand audiences. Woolliscroft credits this experience — and his teachers — with preparing him for the rigors of college and for broadening his horizons beyond the small community in which he grew up.

Jim brought his Minnesotan personality of warmth, optimism and honesty to effectively guide several classes of medical students and residents at the University. —Joseph Silva, M.D., of UC Davis, who worked with Woolliscroft early in his career

Minnesota to Michigan
Woolliscroft went on to attend the University of Minnesota, where he earned a B.S. in 1972 and an M.D. in 1976. He then undertook his internal medicine residency at U-M, where he has remained. “Jim was a standout as a resident and chief resident,” recalls Faith Fitzgerald, M.D., one of Woolliscroft’s attending physicians, who now works at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. “He made himself available to anyone with difficulties. He would step in with wisdom and kindness.”

Woolliscroft took seriously his role as a mentor. As a chief resident, he was responsible for overseeing the intensive care units at a county hospital. This immersion allowed Woolliscroft to hone his leadership ability.

“We really lived together as a residency group. In some places, we essentially ran the hospital as senior residents,” he says.

After completing his residency, Woolliscroft joined the U-M faculty and progressed through the academic ranks before becoming dean in 2007. One of the most significant efforts of his term — the transformation of the Medical School curriculum — officially began in 2013.

Supported by a grant from the American Medical Association, or AMA, the new curriculum is being implemented over five years. It is designed to prepare students to be leaders and positive agents for change in a rapidly evolving medical landscape, one increasingly characterized by interdisciplinary teambased care and dramatic advances in our scientific understanding of health and disease.

Erin McKean (M.D. 2003, Residency 2008, Fellowship 2009, M.B.A. 2013), FACS, associate professor of otolaryngology-head & neck surgery, of neurosurgery and director of the leadership section of the curriculum, credits Woolliscroft with advocating for the inclusion of a fully integrated four-year leadership component. This begins at orientation, which includes activities that feed into the leadership curriculum. According to Woolliscroft, experiential learning and leadership are intimately intertwined. “It is only by being immersed in a situation where you can apply the skills and information you have been taught that you actually learn,” he says.

Rajesh S. Mangrulkar, M.D. (Residency 1998), associate dean for medical student education, and principal investigator on the AMA grant, says that with Woolliscroft’s inspiration, and the guidance he showed in driving the new curriculum, medical students are learning to work together in diverse teams, communicate at different levels, become complex problem solvers, and work within systems to bring about change.

“Jim sees our students as the university’s highest priority, and our most important mission is to prepare them not just for the environment of today or tomorrow, but for 20-30 years from now when they will be in the prime of their careers,” says Mangrulkar, who is also an associate professor of internal medicine and learning health sciences.

For this — and for his many other initiatives at U-M — Woolliscroft received the 2014 Abraham Flexner Award for Distinguished Service to Medical Education, the most prestigious honor given by the Association of American Medical Colleges and an accomplishment achieved by no other dean of the Medical School. Woolliscroft is also an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine).

Another important effort undertaken by Woolliscroft began in 2008, when he recommended to U-M leadership the purchase of the former Pfizer R&D complex in Ann Arbor. He recognized that lack of research space was a constraining factor in realizing the full potential of the Medical School’s research enterprise. What is now known as the North Campus Research Complex represents an unprecedented opportunity to conduct research more collaboratively than ever and to further the university’s mission.

Jim Woolliscroft is one of the most decent men I know. He has a deep, deep reservoir of personal integrity and an incredible equanimity and sense of fairness. When he tells you he will do something, he will do it. He always leads by example. —Michael Mulholland, M.D., Ph.D., Frederick A. Coller Distinguished Professor of Surgery and chair of the Department of Surgery

A Global Vision
Woolliscroft’s influence on medicine extends well beyond the state of Michigan. A dean, he believes, must survey broadly what’s going on in the world. Global economics and global events influence academic medicine. And, so, driving to work in the mornings, Woolliscroft listens to the global financial news. On his drive home, he listens to the BBC. He believes that international influence should extend both ways.

During the past two decades, Woolliscroft worked extensively with educators at Chinese medical schools. In 2010, the Medical School partnered with Peking University Health Science Center in Beijing, China, to form the Joint Institute for Translational & Clinical Research. The institute sponsors collaborative research between scientists based in China and the United States to advance global health. Researchers are currently collaborating in the areas of renal, pulmonary, and cardiac medicine, to name just a few. To date, Woolliscroft says, among their greatest accomplishments has been learning how to collaborate despite cultural and language differences.

On a national level, Woolliscroft was among the first to advocate for reform in the teaching and assessment of students’ clinical skills. He also foresaw that clinical care would increasingly be provided in ambulatory settings, and was among the first to insist that medical students spend time learning and training in community clinics — a perspective that informs today’s curriculum changes. All of this occurred without sacrificing medical students’ deep foundation in pathophysiology and medicine.

“Michigan has a tremendous talent pipeline in its medical students. This is Jim Woolliscroft’s truest legacy,” says Michael Mulholland, M.D., Ph.D., the Frederick A. Coller Distinguished Professor of Surgery and chair of the Department of Surgery.

Family and Fishing
A long row of photographs lines the windows in Woolliscroft’s office. There’s a photo of Woolliscroft and his wife, Beth, as well as a photo of their four children, all U-M graduates, each wearing a maize and blue T-shirt. Woolliscroft picks up a frame holding pictures of his two grandchildren: “They were over yesterday out on the tractor with me.”

Jim Woolliscroft and family
The Woolliscroft family. Photo courtesy of Dean Woolliscroft.

Woolliscroft believes he has seen too many people define themselves by their title or their position. “I’ve always tried to be Jim Woolliscroft comma whatever position, whether it’s dean or executive dean or chief of staff,” Woolliscroft says. He takes a broader view of who he is: “It’s ‘Grandpa.’ It’s ‘Dad,’ rather than just the person working here in this office.”

Dean Woolliscroft fishing.
Dean Woolliscroft fishing. Photo courtesy of Dean Woolliscroft.

When he’s not at work, Woolliscroft enjoys fishing. (He readily volunteers that the bass are “hitting paddle-tail baits right now.”) He also enjoys putting in the flower beds around his house and tending to a vegetable garden. The corn that the raccoons didn’t get this year was good. He didn’t taste the pumpkins. Those went home with the grandchildren.

Woolliscroft takes a yearly trip to northern Canada, accompanied by his cousin and often his children. The group drives to International Falls, Minnesota, crosses the border then heads north for 250 miles. From there, they board a float plane and fly another 120 miles. “It’s wonderful,” Woolliscroft says. “There’s no electricity. No phones. You’re just out in the woods.” For Woolliscroft, time outdoors provides the quiet and space that help him integrate the disparate threads of information he encounters at work. “There are so many things that prevent you from thinking,” he says. “I see this happen all the time. People think they’re really busy because they have a lot of meetings but that doesn’t mean they’re accomplishing much.”

After stepping away from the deanship, Woolliscroft says he plans to spend more of his own time thinking and considering his plans for the future. One thing that does seem likely: He will spend more time fishing. The dean points to a picture of one of his sons holding a 42-inch northern pike. “She’s swimming around up there yet. We’ll go after her again next year.” Woolliscroft releases most of the fish he catches. “Certainly the big ones,” he says, smiling. “Keep those genetics going.”

Top photo by Martin Vloet