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."
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.
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.”