Q&A with Dr. Gregory Dewey

On December 3, 2013, Gregory Dewey, Ph.D., was introduced as the eighth president of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He will assume his new role on July 1, 2014. In this Q&A discussion (posted 12/3/13), Dr. Dewey talks about his previous career experiences and his initial impressions of ACPHS.

As a young person growing up in Pittsburgh, what first piqued your interest in the sciences?

I have been fascinated by science almost since I can remember. My friends and I used to build our own rockets in high school. These were not pre-assembled rockets like what you can get today. We would make the engines, concoct the fuel, and then launch them in vacant fields.

So science, and particularly chemistry, was always a love of mine. The other love was mathematics. I found a certain elegance and beauty in mathematics. I have just always had a natural fascination for those two fields and that continues to this day. I’ve worked in a range of areas throughout my career – biochemistry, biophysics, computational biology. I am very much a generalist with a natural curiosity for a broad set of fields.

You spent your first 18 years in academia at the University of Denver. What led you to that school?

When I interviewed at Denver, it was the first time I’d ever been west of the Mississippi. They were building a new chemistry and biology building and were making a big investment in research. It seemed like an exciting opportunity, so I took the job.

The first week I was there, I went to a faculty wine and cheese party, and that’s where I met my wife. She was a reference librarian at the school. In those days before electronic database searching, you actually had to go into the library and open books, so we ran into each other very frequently.

I rose through the ranks at the University, became a full professor, and was eventually named Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Why did you leave Denver for the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), which was being developed at the time and had yet to enroll its first student?

We had an extremely good undergraduate program at the University, but our graduate program wasn’t where I felt it should be. We had a lot of research funding, but we couldn’t compete with schools like University of Colorado and Colorado State for the best graduate students. There was a lot of soul searching being done around the graduate program.

So I started looking around to see who was developing innovative graduate programs. I discovered a man named Hank Riggs in Claremont, California, who was creating Keck in response to what he felt were flaws in the existing model of graduate education. I thought I might learn from Hank and import his model into Denver. As it turned out, I decided it would be better to join him rather than try to copy what he was doing. I was hired as this new Institute’s first faculty member.

What is different about the approach to education at Keck?

One of the first programs we created was the Master’s in Bioscience. It was an interdisciplinary degree program focused on educating scientists and engineers to be managers in the biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries. Our pedagogical approach focused on teamwork, communication skills, and was geared towards solving applied research problems that are common to businesses and corporations.

These types of programs have become known as Professional Science Master’s (PSM’s), and there are now about 300 of them around the country. As the first one, KGI set the standard for this type of degree. But at the beginning we had real challenges because we were not only creating a new degree program but also a new institute. There were no roadmaps. We built everything from the ground up.

It’s very liberating to start with a blank slate, but it’s also very intimidating. On one hand, there is no history or entrenchments that constrain you, but you can also mess up the blank slate. Like any new venture, we had some growing pains. However, it all turned out very well.

After ten years at Keck, you left the Institute to become Provost at a very different type of school in the University of La Verne in California. How did that come about?

We slowly grew into a mature program at Keck. We were accredited. Our graduates were going out and getting jobs. I got a little restless, so I decided to take a sabbatical.

While I was on sabbatical, I received a call from a headhunter, who said the Provost at the University of La Verne had resigned abruptly, and asked if I would be interested in an interim appointment to help them through this period. I was going on sabbatical, and I saw this as an opportunity to expand my professional experience by taking on the broad range of responsibilities of a provost.

When I arrived, my main order of business was to go around and talk to people, particularly the faculty. I listened to them, worked to understand their points of view, and the mood at the school improved a great deal in a relatively short period of time. I was offered the position on a permanent basis, and I decided to accept. In the subsequent years, we saw dramatic growth at the university. The undergraduate population grew by 60% in five years. So I spent much of my time managing growth.

For me, the ACPHS presidential opportunity merges the Keck experience that was specific to the pharmaceutical industry and the broader institutional responsibilities I had at La Verne. Also, La Verne has four professional doctoral programs, so I have a good sense of the opportunities and challenges with that kind of program. The position at ACPHS leverages my experiences while moving on into the different set of responsibilities of the president.

What first attracted you to the position of president at ACPHS?

The attraction with Albany is that it has a long history, has served its students well, and served the profession well. It’s at a very strategic point in its existence. It wants to grow at a time when the importance of health care is growing in America.

When the human genome project came out in early 2000’s, it was said that the 20th century was the century of physics and the 21st century will be the century of biology. How do you translate all of these advances in a way that benefits the health care system? Most schools in the country are still working to find an educational model to accomplish that.

During the 20th century, the great engineering schools in this country educated the innovators that would take basic discoveries in physics and chemistry and translate them into the amazing new technologies that we are surrounded by today. Now we need an educational model that will educate the innovators to take the discoveries of 21st century biology and translate them into new therapies. ACPHS is in a position to create such a new model with its expanded academic footprint that covers both undergraduate and doctoral education. That’s what I think is most attractive about this position.

What were your initial impressions of the College from the interview process?

I was very favorably impressed. My wife and I visited the campus one day during the interview process, and the students seemed very energetic and enthused. From what I’ve seen and heard, it looks like there is a good balance of teaching and scholarship that exists among the faculty. It seems like a place that is well run, and the finances have been handled very responsibly.

Expanding from a school of pharmacy to a school of pharmacy and health sciences shows really solid strategic thinking. It is important that the school establishes a broader academic footprint. My job, in part, is to continue with the implementation of this strategic vision. We have already started down this path, but there is still much to do. That’s what is exciting. To continue in that visionary direction.

What do you think the keys are to being an effective leader?

I believe that there are three characteristics of a good leader: (1) Visionary – Someone who has the ability to work with the community to define a vision and then to articulate it back to the community; (2) Genuine – People have to see that you are motivated by what is in the best interests of the institution, not your own personal gain or a political agenda; (3) Inspirational – If you have #1 and #2, you will be well along the path to being an effective leader, but you need to also be able to inspire people to push beyond their perceived limits, driven by what is best for the institution.

What types of things would you like to accomplish between now and when you begin the job on July 1, 2014?

This was a confidential search, which is the way more searches are being conducted these days. One of the drawbacks of such a search is that you don’t have many opportunities to meet faculty, staff, and students outside the members of the search committee. I plan to make frequent trips back and forth from California to meet as many people as I can before I start. I will also use this time to develop a strong relationship with the members of the Board of Trustees. That way, when I begin there is a certain level of familiarity that exists. I will also be using the intervening months to review the finances of the college, curricula, and just generally working to better understand the institution.

There has been much discussion in the past year about the cost and value of higher education. What impact do you see those discussions having in the next 5-10 years?

Generally speaking, with increased costs comes decreased access. We have to be mindful of that. There is no question that the value of a college degree over one’s lifetime far outstrips the ROI from, say, the stock market – even over its best stretch. The challenge is that if the financial burden is too great at the beginning, it’s difficult for graduates to reach that point of return. We need to contain costs and to find creative ways for students to finance their education. Ultimately, we also need to be more adventurous and reduce our dependence on tuition dollars. That means employing more of an entrepreneurial mindset in the development of programs and actively seeking out other sources of revenue.

What is something about you that people might be surprised to know?

When my wife Cindy and I became empty nesters around five years ago, she had the idea for the two of us to do a triathlon. I ran all through high school and college, but I worried about what type of shape I could get in at this point of my life.

The first one we did was a “sprint” triathlon, so the distances were manageable. I ended up finishing it, but it was a complete disaster. I didn’t want that to be my lasting impression of triathlons, so we signed up for another one, and we’ve just kept going. We’ve sort of become triathlon fanatics. In fact, I completed my first Half Ironman Triathlon this past year (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run).