By Chris Lazzarino

Sometimes secrets hold. This one sure did. From Sept. 22, when Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little announced that she would conclude her eight-year KU tenure on June 30, until the May 25 campus meeting called that morning by the Kansas Board of Regents to reveal her replacement, not a single name came forward.

Certainly not officially: The search—organized by a consultant and overseen by a committee of 25 alumni, faculty, students and staff from across the University community—was closed to the public, with no open meetings or presentations.

A genuine mystery was unfolding in the Lied Center, and even David Dillon, the retired chairman and CEO of The Kroger Co. who chaired the chancellor search committee, was in the dark until moments before the Regents' public meeting began. Dillon knew which "three to five"—he would be no more specific than that-candidates his committee forwarded to the Regents, of course, but, until moments before the news became public, nothing about which candidate the Regents had chosen.

“I knew before I sat down, but only a few minutes before I sat down,” said Dillon, b’73. “The committee was not aware of the choice.”

Four and a half minutes into the Lied Center meeting, gaveled to order promptly at 1 p.m. by Regents chair Zoe Newton, Regent Daniel J. Thomas was the first to make the governing board's intention clear: "After holding many leadership roles at the University of Kansas Medical Center over the last 23 years …"

And with that, the secret was out. Executive Vice Chancellor Douglas A. Girod, a world-renowned microvascular head-and-neck cancer surgeon, was the Regents' choice to succeed Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. Bill Feuerborn quickly seconded Thomas' motion, and the board unanimously affirmed Girod.

"The work we do changes lives," Girod said to his first audience as the next chancellor of the University of Kansas, "and it improves our world in very meaningful ways."

Chancellor Gray-Little describes her successor as "a person who is easy to work with, someone who is well organized, someone who is collaborative, a big cheerleader for KU, someone who has a good business mind."

Given relentless financial pressure placed on all Regents institutions because of the state's budgetary travails, it seemed at least plausible that KU's chancellorship might no longer attract a large pool of elite candidates. Not so, Dillon emphasized.

"In fact, it was just the opposite," he said. "People see that Bernadette has taken us a long way in a very positive direction, but they also see lots of opportunity. Good leaders typically believe that they can help make a difference, and they lined up to show us that they could do that."

As Doug and Susan Girod greeted campus colleagues and community members who filled the Lied's airy lobby, Robert Simari, m'86, whom Girod hired away from the Mayo Clinic in 2014 as dean of the School of Medicine, and Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center, lingered long enough to soak in what had just transpired. Both were members of the chancellor search committee, and both had presumably been enthusiastic supporters of Girod's name being forwarded to the Board of Regents, but now it was real, and the Kansas City, Kansas, campus where they work would be in for big changes.

“It’s an exciting day for KU,” Jensen said. “As the broader KU community gets to know Doug, they’re going to be extraordinarily impressed with what a great guy he is. He’s just so dedicated to the University and the state of Kansas, and I think he’s an outstanding choice.”

Girod is the third dean of KU’s School of Medicine to be promoted to chancellor, following a popular tandem whose combined tenures in Strong Hall stretched from 1951 to 1969: internist Franklin Murphy, c’36, and pharmacologist W. Clarke Wescoe. Girod is the first surgeon to serve KU as chancellor.

“Surgeons tend to be people who can make a decision,” Jensen noted. “I think he does a really good job of collecting all the data that’s possible to make sure that it’s a well-informed decision, but he doesn’t hem and haw around once he thinks he has a sufficient body of evidence to move forward."

Unlike the vast majority of academic medical deans across the country, Simari still makes time for his clinical practice—following the lead set by his boss.

“Doug is one of the highest-respected ENT cancer surgeons in the world, he’s been the head of national societies and he still sees patients,” Simari said. “Or, up until today he still saw patients. We’ll see.”

As for how Girod’s training and experience as a surgeon might influence his ability to be a successful KU chancellor, Simari replied, “It’s all about planning. It’s all about execution. That’s how he’s made his living as a surgeon.

“It’s also about teams. No 12-hour surgery happens just because the surgeon is there. It happens because there’s a team.”

The day after his introduction as KU’s next chancellor, Doug Girod’s email crashed. Twice. The following day, a Saturday, it crashed again. More than 200 text messages swamped his phone and his Facebook and LinkedIn accounts were flooded.

“It’s kind of come on all fronts, which has just been delightful,” Girod says, two weeks and a day after the big announcement. It was a few minutes from the end of a long week, late on a Friday afternoon, and Girod’s enthusiasm had not dimmed in the slightest.

Well-wishers greeting Doug and Susan Girod May 25 in the Lied Center lobby, shortly after the Kansas Board of Regents introduced Girod to alumni and campus colleagues as the University's 18th chancellor, included search committee chair David Dillon (left) and Roy Jensen (above), director of the KU Cancer Center.

He explains that he’s heard from old friends and people he has never met, from faculty and deans from the Lawrence campus and from alumni across the country, including former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, ’45.

“He said, ‘You may not be aware, but we have this little institute over in Lawrence,’” Girod recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Yes, I’m very aware, and what a great asset it is.’”

As he has assuredly done with all of Girod’s predecessors for the past half-century, Dole also told Girod, “I’m here for you if there’s anything you need.” The same sentiment was expressed countless times in countless emails and phone calls, and Girod took it all to heart.

“You know, it’s pretty remarkable, and I do believe it’s relatively unique to KU,” he says. “I’m sure there are other universities like that, but I will tell you, none of my alma maters are like that. The fact that people are even paying attention is pretty remarkable, and the speed with which that happened ... Yeah, remarkable.”

Beyond the crimson-and-blue cheer that buoyed his spirits, Girod is realistic about the job that awaits. “Higher-ed nationally is in a relative state of crisis at the moment,” he says. That’s due to post-recession budget strains “that we’ve not recovered from” and what Girod sees as “the national shift of mentality away from a fairly universal perspective that education is good for the country and good for the economy to one where now education is a personal privilege and obligation.”

Girod continues, “That shift of cost from being funded at the state and federal level to more of the individual has been pretty dramatic, but it’s been national. It’s certainly not unique to us.”

Given those factors, Girod says, he is fortunate to lead a university faring as well as KU.

KU Endowment’s Far Above: The Campaign for Kansas last year topped out at more than $1.6 billion, 49 percent of which came from new donors; about $470 million in design and construction, including the massive Central District complex, is underway on Mount Oread, all of which Girod is already up to speed on as a member of the chancellor’s Capital Projects Council; and the $75 million Health Education Building, which will reinvent health care education at KU Medical Center, will open before the start of fall classes.

And, of course, there are the people. For Girod, it’s always the people.

“To see five years of growth of the freshman class, to see your most academically talented freshman class ever, to see the growth of diversity we’ve experienced within our classes, and to see the continued success of our alumni, I think we’re extraordinarily fortunate,” Girod says, crediting Gray-Little. “There is not an element of this job that I believe she did not excel at. I think we owe her a debt of gratitude.”

What skills can a surgeon bring to a chancellorship? Decision making, teamwork, sure. But for Girod, it’s also about focusing on the patient.

“We look at patients like we need to look at students,” he says, explaining that surgeons must develop the skill of empathy so they can see the world through their patients’ eyes. When educators develop a similar empathy for students, Girod says, “we learn to think differently about how we do things."

" I firmly believe that if a student has just an absolutely outstanding experience, that pays dividends in everything we care about. It continues to provide growth in the student population, it continues to allow you to grow your faculty, it allows you to grow your research programs, it gets you your best and brightest kids. If we focus on that, the rest will follow.”

Gray-Little agrees. “I’m very pleased to see that he would carry through that emphasis into his new role, which is overseeing the experience at the entire University.”

In 2004, while leading a group of medical students on a medical mission to Antigua, Guatemala, Girod delighted in the spartan operating suite the KU doctors, nurses and students found deep within Obras Sociales del Hermano Pedro, a church, orphanage, hospital and resident-care facility that sprawls across an entire block of the old mountain city.

When the O.R.’s only computer broke down on the first morning, Girod cheerfully drew up the surgical schedule by hand. Racks of supplies were hardly overflowing, but everything was clean and efficient, and post-operative recovery rooms were mere strides away.

“This is an opportunity to learn what you have to have to get by,” Girod said at the time. “The reality is, we don’t need nearly as much as we have to work with back home.”

Girod maintains an active schedule of traveling on medical journeys across the globe—he’s recently been to India and China to establish exchange programs for faculty, residents and students—and those experiences continue pushing him to help invent better health care delivery here.

Jimmy (l-r), Callie and Katelyn Girod traveled extensively with their parents on worldwide medical missions, especially to Central America. "Frankly, selfishly, I got into it because I wanted my kids to have that experience," Chancellor Girod says. "I wanted them to know what most of the world lives with, and lives without, and to have that opportunity to see that firsthand and to have that opportunity to participate and give back."

Even with a dramatic evolution toward patient-centered health care, though, the system remains infinitely difficult to grasp, let alone manage. That, Girod contends, should be noted by those who argue that his experience might not translate to the larger role he’ll play in Strong Hall.

Susan Twombly, professor of higher education and chair of the department of educational leadership and policy studies, told the Lawrence Journal-World, “I think he’s a fine leader, and I was impressed with what he was able to do at the medical center, but that was a very limited role ... I don’t think he knows much about undergraduate education.”

Girod is eager to erase such doubts, and says his experience at KU Medical Center should be seen not as limited, but expansive and applicable to the job of chancellor.

“The complexity of our health system is like none other in the world,” he says, “and having to learn how to navigate that successfully and to morph with it—because it’s also changing incredibly quickly—has given me a very practical experience of being able to address rapidly changing challenges, I think, effectively.

“And, through graduated responsibility, I’ve been able to get better at it over time. The issues get bigger, but they’re the same issues.”

Lawrence-campus faculty who have not stayed abreast of what Girod terms “generational change” at KU Medical Center risk being slow to respond to the new chancellor’s priorities. At the very least, it’s a smart bet that the culture shift he experienced as the schools of medicine, nursing and health professions merged their curricula ahead of the opening of the Health Education Building will influence his thinking as chancellor.

“That has really broken down so many silos on this campus,” Girod says of the changes brought by the Health Education Building. “Not just between medicine, nursing and health professions, but also between departments, because the education is no longer department based. It is sort of disease based and activity based.

“It’s a completely new philosophy on health professions education, taking what we’ve learned in the hospital about the importance of teamwork and bringing that right back to the beginning, where that teamwork can take place from day one in the classroom.”

After leaving active duty in the U.S. Navy, Girod in 1994 accepted an appointment at KU for the opportunity to build a world-class department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery; at the time, no other hospital in the region offered the reconstructive surgery in which Girod specialized.

Girod rose to department chair in 2002 and, among numerous other leadership positions, he also served as senior associate dean for clinical affairs and interim executive dean. In 2013 Gray-Little appointed Girod executive vice chancellor of KU Medical Center.

“He’s a Jayhawk, through and through,” says Alumni Association president Heath Peterson, d’04, g’09. “He’s proven that. The growth and progress that the Med Center has made under his leadership speaks for itself, and there’s no doubt he will be a great partner to the Alumni Association and KU Endowment.”

Asked what he would like to be known for 10 years into his chancellorship, Girod replies rather bluntly, “I don’t particularly care what I’m known for, but what I would like is for KU to be the destination. Not just in the Midwest, but one of the top destinations in the United States, if not the world, for faculty and students. And we have everything we need to be that, we really do.

“Not that it’s not going to take work; it absolutely is. But because of the health of the University and the great job Bernadette has done of weathering the storm of the last seven, eight years, and doing so in a very fiscally responsible and strategic fashion, we are well positioned to become that.”

Girod and Alumni Association president Heath Peterson shared a few laughs at the KU Alumni Invitational, June 26 at Hutchinson's famed Prairie Dunes Country Club. "He's done a great job connecting with the alumni base even prior to this role," Peterson says. "I know statewide outreach will be a huge priority for him, and we have the infrastructure to help him be effective."

Girod insists that his primary motivation for accepting leadership positions is to help others succeed, a pledge that rings true to those who know him.

“It’s not about him, and that’s why he’s been so successful,” says John Ballard III, b’73, a member of the Alumni Association’s national Board of Directors. “He’s a great listener, and he’s always so positive and energetic and warm.”

Says Peterson, “With Doug, it’s 100 percent about the institution and the people, no question.”

Asked what the broader KU community will find in the leader those at KU Medical Center already know well, Dean Simari—later named KU Medical Center’s interim executive vice chancellor—replies, “His genuine nature and his high integrity. He is who he is. There is no pretext.”

A native of Salem, Oregon, Doug Girod grew up racing motorcycles across rugged backcountry timber roads, funding his hobby by working in a motorcycle shop. Thinking he might want to become an electrical engineer, Girod ventured to Silicon Valley, where he enrolled in junior college and took a job assembling Pong video-game consoles. That lasted four days, but Girod then found work on a production line that manufactured pizza-sized memory platters that held an astonishing 20 megabytes of data.

Factory work failed to win Girod over to the digital revolution, instead pushing him toward the other field he had considered as a viable career. Medicine, though, was not the best discovery he made in California.

“I met Doug ...”

Susan Girod interrupts herself, smiles and says sweetly, “Look at him, he’s peeking at me.” She is standing in the driveway of The Outlook, their future home, watching her husband have a bit of fun while posing for photographs on the grand porch.

“I met Doug when we were just 18 years old, on a blind date, and he’s … he’s never surprised me. It’s always been … how do I want to say this? … I always knew he had it in him. He’s always been that guy, looking ahead, and we’ve been a team from the very beginning.”

Susan’s father, Jim Pirtle, worked in construction and the family followed his work travels around the West, circulating through California, Arizona, Colorado and back again. She paid attention as her late mother, Frances, supported Jim with everything she had to give, and Susan brought that same spirit of togetherness into her own marriage and family.

Her children are grown now—Katelyn is Hispanic community services adviser for Olathe Public Schools, Callie is a neuroscience nurse at KU Medical Center, and Jimmy, c’14, works with autistic children at KidsTLC in Olathe—but they still honor the Girod family tradition of spending Sundays together.

“One of the best things—and of course it was Susan’s idea, like all good ideas—was that Sundays are family days,” Doug Girod says. “And we’re still pretty rigid about it. Unless somebody is traveling, you just don’t plan anything else on Sunday.”

Whatever playfulness already existed in Doug Girod’s personality before he met Susan, it has, without doubt, been amplified by his bride.

He and Jimmy both own Harley-Davidsons and they try to make time for annual pilgrimages to the famous rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, where they decamp in a friend’s house alongside a stream plentiful with trout. Susan is encouraging him to bring the big bike to Lawrence.

“I told him it would give him street cred with the kids,” she says, grinning, “if he rode the Harley through campus.”

Once they’ve sold their Mission Hills home and moved to Lilac Lane, the Girods plan to buy a small place in Kansas City to keep as a base where her father, his mother and their kids, all of whom live in the Kansas City area, can connect, but The Outlook will be their home—for Susan Girod, home No. 21.

“When we came to Kansas City for Doug to work at KU Med, we had our first home here for 17 years,” she says. “That’s the longest I’ve been anywhere in my life.”

KU’s 18th chancellor says the biggest shift will be for his wife, who steps into more of a public role than has previously been asked of her. She consulted Shade Keys Little for advice, and gratefully accepted his offer to lead her on tours of The Outlook and its rather expansive grounds, Mount Oread, which she plans to further explore during long walks with her dog, Noffie.

“Kansas is home to me,” she says. “People say to me, what about the West Coast, going back? And the Regents asked me about that, too, about wanting to go back. I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll never go back to California.’ I had a background of moving, moving, moving, so to be in that space for 17 years, raising our family, really cemented the idea that Kansas is home.”

“She’s really embraced it,” the chancellor says of Susan’s eagerness to find her place in a KU community beyond the comfort zone of KU Med. “She’s excited. A little nervous, but very excited. Like both of us.”

When Girod accepted Gray-Little’s offer to become executive vice chancellor, he worried he might have to give up his medical practice. Helping sick people heal had, to that point, been his professional life. Assured that he could continue to see patients for half a day each week, he embraced the leadership opportunity with vigor.

Girod felt the same concern when he and Susan agreed that he should stand for chancellor, and the Regents allayed his fear by allowing him to maintain the same clinical schedule to continue tending his cancer patients, some of whom he’s treated for 20 years.

“When he was looking at making this transition, I think he was ready to take that step if he needed to,” Susan Girod says. “But I think he was extremely pleased that he gets to hang onto it, because that was, you know, his first real love.”

She pauses, smiles, and adds, “Besides me.”

It happens because there’s a team. From the very beginning.


Portraits by Steve Puppe

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