Allegro e Appassionato
Dartmouth Medical School's dean keeps a fast and furious pace as he champions DMS both internally and externally. And singing the School's praises is something that he does with passion.
By Laura Stephenson Carter
All photographs by Flying Squirrel Graphics
Great conductors get the best out of musicians and make them want to play," said a musician during a recent National Public Radio interview. Stephen Spielberg, M.D., Ph.D., isn't a conductor . . . exactly. But as the dean of Dartmouth Medical School, he knows how to get the best out of his "musicians"—other deans, members of the faculty, students—and how to make them want to "play."
In fact, he is a musician—he has sung in a cappella groups at various times during his career and plays the piano regularly (in the privacy of his home). So it's no surprise that he turns to musical metaphors when asked to describe his job. The goal of a dean, he says, is "to prevent too much cacophony around the edges." But, he adds with a laugh, that "doesn't always mean that you're in absolute harmony. I mean, you can have 12-tone and other unusual composition styles thrown in. But [the point] is to somehow or another make sure that there is a central focus on the needs of the whole, in the midst of all of the individual activities that are going on."
There are indeed a lot of activities at a medical school, and the dean needs to have at least a passing familiarity with all of them—from facilities management to curriculum; from budgets to the research enterprise; from student activities to faculty recruitment; from governmental relations to patient care. On top of all that, just like the conductor of a major orchestra, the dean is very involved in raising funds to ensure the institution's future. Oh, yes, and Spielberg also keeps up with advances in his field—pediatric pharmacology.
"The job description is endless, in a way," he laughs. Laughing is something Spielberg does a lot, despite the demands on his time and energy. "The reality of it," he says of being a dean, "is
that it's absolutely undoable—except for the fact we've got fabulous people who dedicate their focus and effort to each of these areas. The issue then is to help orchestrate, to help bring them together, to help find paths for synergy, to help find ways of getting more bang for the buck—recognizing the buck is harder to get—and to maximize the way we do business among all those aspects."
So how does Spielberg manage to get everyone working together so well? He cajoles, coaches, and cheerleads. He exudes enthusiasm as he draws out all the attendees at a meeting, the way a conductor draws a full sound from, say, all the violins. In fact, Spielberg looks like a conductor, since he has a penchant for gesturing animatedly.
"He has an optimistic, jovial, pediatrician's attitude about life,"
observes Joseph O'Donnell, M.D., DMS's senior advising dean and director of community programs.
"I most enjoy his absolutely unharnessed optimism, enthusiasm, and excitement about the Medical School being an excellent medical school," says David Nierenberg, M.D., senior associate dean for medical education. "In my area, he's always been eager to listen, absorb, think, and ask why. If we agree, he says, 'Go for it.'"
The dean's energy is infectious. "One cannot help but share his enthusiasm and optimism about the future of medicine," says James Varnum, president of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital.
Spielberg has another secret to success. "There are certain things that make the job doable," he confides. One is the "opportunity to do something meaningful." The other is being "in a setting with like-minded people with similar agendas—be it basic science, curriculum, delivery of health care, or policy implementation." He likes working with people who are "infused with a great deal of passion and vision for the future. That's what gets you out of bed in the morning."
While Spielberg says he's "not an insomniac, up at 4:00 a.m.," he does keep long hours and also travels a lot. Here's a sampling of some of the events during the past few months that got Spielberg "out of bed in the morning."
Monday, August 9, 8:30 a.m.
Chilcott Auditorium at DMS
It's the start of a new academic year for the Medical School. Orientation week for the 84 first-year M.D. students begins this morning. Spielberg bustles into Chilcott and greets Nicholas Osborne, a fourthyear student who's president of the DMS Student Government, then reviews
Laura Carter is the associate editor of Dartmouth Medicine.