BALTIMORE – In his charge are 1,277 students and 1,106 faculty. The hours are long, the hobnobbing endless.
Just over four years ago, Donald Wilson abandoned the internationally respected medical research that had helped him realize childhood aspirations to be judged on his work, not his skin color. He became dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“I’ve never wanted to be a dean,” Wilson says. “But I thought I could accomplish a few things I couldn’t accomplish if I wasn’t a dean.”
He was seeking a “sense of independence” when he decided at the age of 7 that he would go into medicine. Wilson, who was raised in Worcester, Mass., by grade school-educated parents from South Carolina, says he “never knew any interest in anything else.”
At Maryland, he became the first black to lead an American medical school that is not predominantly black. Nearly five years into his tenure, Wilson has impressed peers with his responsiveness and work ethic.
Candid, confident and warm, the 59-year-old Wilson measured his soft-spoken words during a recent interview in his spacious office atop a 14-story medical school building.
Dr. David Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, says this manner carries over into Wilson’s decision making. “He really likes to get all the facts, analyze them,” Ramsay says.
Many students and faculty rave about Wilson.
A revamped curriculum implemented in fall 1994 provides students more free time, smaller discussion groups, and more direct patient interaction. Peers, meanwhile, credit Wilson with recruiting top faculty specialists.
Wilson has overseen construction of research buildings, helping catapult the school into the ranks of the country’s fastest growing research institutions.
But the job has carried frustrations.
“I didn’t expect resources to disappear as rapidly as they have — from the state,” Wilson says.
In fiscal year 1991, the state provided $32.5 million of the medical school’s $189.9 million budget; in 1995, only $28.3 million of $246.3 million.
Wilson also did not foresee the “constant” social interaction or the need for “always reacting to something” that pre-empts planning time. He confesses that he sometimes wants to blurt out, “how much time do you think one person can give to those 1,200 students in order to educate them?”
Even so, students say he often intervenes within 24 hours if there are problems with professors or if financial aid is late.
“He’s interested in finding out what’s going on and acting on it,” 1997 class president Heidi Ginter says.
Wilson says he is motivated by a “New England”-rooted “sense of duty.”
He grew up with few career options. “The only business black people could go into was the funeral business,” to handle the black corpses whites would not, he recalls.
Wilson says his parents balked when his 7th grade principal recommended that he go to vocational school: “`Wait a minute, he’s an all-`A’ student… no thanks, he’s going to prep school.'”
As a Harvard freshman in 1954, he encountered a suspicious roommate assignment process. He and the five other blacks in the 1,162-member class were matched with Jews, he says.
He applied to three medical schools, among them predominantly black Howard University. “I knew I’d get into medical school. There wasn’t any issue,” Wilson recalls.
He chose Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Academic medicine was and is “an old boys’ club,” he says. At Tufts, blacks “were never encouraged to do anything by the teaching staff.”
Frank Calia, Wilson’s vice dean, was with him at Harvard and Tufts, where black students were “more talented than everyone else. They had to be to get into places like that.” But, Calia adds, “I don’t think people made it easy for [them].”
As dean, Wilson has sought racial diversity. This year’s freshmen are 21 percent African-American, for example — almost double the percentages of recent years.
But recruiting minority faculty has been difficult, Wilson says. Few Black and Hispanic students choose academia, given the lack of role models, he says.
Wilson also believes that instead of simply providing medical care to impoverished or minority neighborhoods, public medical schools should produce doctors who understand the cultures of these communities.
He illustrates with a hypothetical example: A “well- intentioned” white doctor might recommend that a black woman eat more vegetables, unaware that the intent will be undermined when she fries them in oil.
Wilson’s day is long, his time for his wife, Patricia, and two teen-age children scarce. He arrives at the office around 7 a.m., and may return to his Owings Mills home as late as 11 p.m., rarely by 8.
The school rewards him with a $357,000 annual salary, according to the state comptroller’s office.
Despite the schedule, Wilson is not planning an exit.
“I’ll stay here as long as I feel, on balance, I’m having fun and having an impact,” he says. He acknowledges missing the research he forfeited after six months as dean, but reasons after a pause, “in the last analysis, this may be more important.” -30-