Almost one in four of the nation's 125 medical schools has operated at least part of this year without a permanent dean, but observers of the profession say there's no cause for alarm.
As of last week, 16 of the nation's medical schools were operating with "interim" or "acting" deans as a result of retirements or departures of some sort. Another 13 medical schools have hired permanent deans since January, the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington said.
The AAMC said at any one time there are about a dozen medical schools operating without permanent deans in place.
"It's a challenging job these days, but the turnover is not a lot different than it has been in recent years," said Harry Jonas, M.D., assistant vice president for medical education at the American Medical Association.
"These things go in waves, and then it drops way down," said Robert Dickler, senior vice president of healthcare affairs at the AAMC.
The AAMC's Office of Institutional Planning and Development, which tracks dean openings, said the turnover numbers seem high when the number of deans that have been appointed this year (13) are added to the number of permanent positions open (16). Thus, 29, or 23%, of the nation's medical schools have operated without a permanent dean at some time during 1996.
The trend isn't likely to subside next year, when some notable deans will retire. Among those who already have announced they are stepping down next year include Daniel Tosteson, M.D., dean of Harvard University Medical School, who will retire next June after 20 years, and Harry Beaty, M.D., who has been dean at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago for more than a decade.
"These deans are in the business of providing tertiary care, raising money from alumni, trying to get research grants, to name just a few things they do," Jonas said. "You try to juggle all of those balls and run a good curriculum."
Today's dean is likely to be different from the deans of the past.
"In an earlier time, a dean was selected for his academic accomplishments," said Jonas, a dean himself at the University of Missouri Medical School in Kansas City. Jonas also is secretary of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which accredits U.S. and Canadian medical schools.
"You're seeing different criteria today," Jonas said. "You may have a Nobel laureate apply, but he or she needs to have management skills and be able to reach out to the community."