A Dunn Deal

David Dunn transplants his medical and botanical successes from Minnesota to UB

David Dunn

David Dunn, UB’s new vice president for health sciences, surveys his new landscape from the heart of the South Campus. (Photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89)

As UB’s recently appointed vice president for health sciences, David Dunn is responsible for overseeing the schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy and public health. With his sights set on elevating the university’s stature as a premier research center, he’ll be selectively recruiting new faculty members, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration and fostering partnerships with outside agencies. From his position in UB President John Simpson’s inner circle, he’ll make decisions on how to improve the quality of clinical care that will reverberate throughout the region and beyond.

On the morning of this interview about his position in Buffalo, however, the distinguished physician and scientist was fresh from dealing with a decidedly more personal matter of health-care delivery: tending to one of his toddler twins, who had been sick the night before with an upset stomach.

“I was getting up with him, and then I just couldn’t get back to sleep after that,” he says. “If I’m awakened too many times, I’m finally at the point where I think it’s time to go to the O.R.”

As it turns out, he’ll soon be doing that as well. In a few months, Dunn plans to shed his suit for scrubs one day a week, operating at Buffalo General Hospital in his other capacity at UB: professor of surgery and microbiology/immunology.

If anyone is hardwired for both the intricacies of complex surgery and the diplomacy of top-tier administration, it’s Dunn, say those who know him. He proved as much at the University of Minnesota, where he ascended through the ranks of the Department of Surgery to become its chair. In that position, he vaulted a department back to national prominence after it had been mired in scandal, all the while maintaining a busy operating schedule.

“I also managed to help run the hot dog stand at all of my older son’s high school football games,” Dunn says with a laugh. “At halftime there were all these people lining up and, actually, it was very calming compared to what I was dealing with at work.”

Rescuing a troubled department

Dunn’s medical career began at Minnesota in 1977, when he joined the Department of Surgery as a resident. He served as a fellow in general surgery from 1977 until 1985 and in transplantation and transplantation immunology from 1985 to 1986, when he joined the medical school’s faculty as assistant professor. In 1989, a year after earning a PhD in microbiology, he was promoted to associate professor with tenure.

Then, in 1992, just before he became a full professor with tenure, the department that had gained international recognition for its pioneering work in open-heart surgery and organ transplants made headlines of a dramatically different sort—for alleged criminal misconduct.

The Food and Drug Administration shut down a program involving the production of antilymphocyte globulin (ALG), a multimillion-dollar transplant drug developed by world-famous transplant surgeon John Najarian. Federal prosecutors charged that Najarian, then the department chair, had diverted millions of dollars in federal grants, presided over ALG’s illegal sale and failed to inform patients that the unlicensed drug was experimental.

Although Najarian was eventually cleared of all charges, the university agreed to pay $32 million to settle the government’s claim that the school profited illegally from the drug’s sale—the largest amount ever recovered by the federal government in a case involving National Institutes of Health grants.

In the wake of Najarian’s forced resignation, with the department’s morale abysmal, its reputation tarnished and its finances in shambles, Dunn was courted to replace him. Several of his colleagues urged him to instead accept one of the several plum chairmanships he had been offered elsewhere. Trying to rehabilitate the Minnesota department would sound the death knell of his career, they cautioned him.

“I gave it a second thought, and a third thought, but I make up my own mind about things,” he says. “What I saw there was incredible opportunity. I also had a great deal of loyalty to the academic department where I had trained and where I’d been a faculty member. I believed we could really build it in a different way—build a 21st century department.”

To that end, Dunn undertook a series of striking initiatives. He required all research to be supported by outside agencies rather than department funds, a step that would eventually double research funding. He organized a performance-based physician compensation system and had faculty members revamp resident education, which turned the residency program into one of the country’s most competitive. And, he not only persuaded faculty from jumping ship, but also hired promising scientists who would make the department a leader in cutting-edge fields, such as islet-cell transplantation, robotics and minimally invasive surgery.

“He was willing to put in the hard work of defending the Department of Surgery from the wolves,” says David Sutherland, professor and head of the division of transplantation at the University of Minnesota. “He made sure the financial reserves were secure, he recognized the need for young, competent faculty members and he went out and got them. He is a very tough defender of faculty interests and demands that everyone play by the rules.”

Rainer Gruessner, professor of general and transplant surgery at the University of Minnesota who has known Dunn since 1987, says that his former colleague’s inherent optimism and keen foresight played critical roles in the department’s turnaround. “There were many bad feelings about what had happened, but he said that we had to start anew,” says Gruessner, the department’s vice chair.

“The department of surgery had been a stronghold for 40 or 50 years, and he made sure it wouldn’t fade away,” Gruessner adds, noting the seven endowed chairs that were established under Dunn’s leadership. “The majority of the faculty, particularly the younger faculty, truly trusted him, and gave him all their support.”

Just as Dunn’s surgical background served him well in his administrative post in Minneapolis, Gruessner believes it will again work to his advantage, and by extension the university’s, in his current position.

“He’s well-trained in acting under stress. The hands-on experience of surgery is good for an administrator because it forces you to pay attention to details. The surgical world forces you to make quick decisions—life or death decisions. As much as it is true that administrative decisions don’t have to be made within an instant of a second, I think that his natural instincts as a surgeon to make crucial decisions in a short period of time—along with his vision—make him a great administrator.”

Adapting successful strategies and planting a garden

Although Dunn faces a more diffuse set of responsibilities in Buffalo, he’s confident that several of the strategies he employed at the University of Minnesota can be adapted for UB’s long-term benefit. “What I’m trying to do is garner more resources for health sciences and deal with some fairly longstanding, systemic problems that require attention: recruiting new faculty and dealing with how we appoint faculty with insufficient state funding,” he explains.

In an effort to secure additional financial support through philanthropic contributions and business partnerships, Dunn is working closely with Marsha Henderson, vice president for external affairs at UB. Like Dunn’s colleagues in Minneapolis, Henderson is impressed with his ability to build consensus and tackle problems analytically.

“He’s always on an even keel and is able to express himself in a very rational manner that brings about good discussion about a subject,” she says. “It doesn’t drift into emotion—it’s based on the facts. He looks at the facts and is able to very quickly decipher the central question and move the conversation forward.”

When asked why he was inclined to accept the vice presidency, Dunn offers a variety of compelling reasons. “As I interviewed for this position, it became very apparent to me that with John Simpson and Provost Satish Tripathi at the helm, everyone here was determined to see major changes made for the better and really move UB into the top echelon. Asking me to help with that in health sciences was very attractive to me.

“And I like challenges—surmountable challenges. I don’t like impossible challenges. It just struck me there are a lot of resources here. The resources need to be redeployed in some areas, but there is a lot of opportunity. I’ve always striven for excellence, and I think challenges are part of that. It’s not about me and my ego—it’s about building something better.”

Dunn was also drawn to Buffalo for the weather, believe it or not. A lifelong gardener, he was thrilled to learn that Western New York’s soil thaws two months earlier than the ground in Minneapolis. That means he’ll have that much longer to enjoy the 40 buckets of day lilies, many of which he hybridized himself and transported here in a U-Haul truck.

“My mom was an avid gardener, so she taught me to garden,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s very relaxing. Not everyone finds it that way, but I do.”

Music, medievalism and medicine

If digging in the dirt as a child gave Dunn an early appreciation for working with his hands, studying classical piano helped sharpen his fine motor skills for surgery. Growing up in a small township outside Detroit, he started taking lessons at the age of five. With his sister on harp, he was frequently called upon to perform duets for his parents’ dinner guests.

“Reading and music and academics and history were all very important in my household,” he recalls. “You grow up in a household like that and you want to excel, and for the right reasons: to try to make things better, to learn new things, to teach.”

Dunn’s mother was a medical technologist who thrived in a second career as a real estate agent. His father was a general practitioner who died of a pituitary tumor when Dunn was 16. “My father told me to never go into medicine,” he says. “I think if he had lived longer, I probably would have figured out whether or not he was using reverse psychology on me. I suspect he was, because he really loved what he was doing.”

By the time of his father’s death, Dunn had already made up his mind that he would follow in his footsteps. He was also growing increasingly restless with the high school curriculum. Too bored to continue, he dropped out during his senior year. Based on his PSAT scores, he was accepted to the honors program at Wayne State University. Dunn transferred to and graduated from the University of Michigan—where he would also receive his medical degree—but not before convincing his mom to sign off on his international visa so he could study at National Autonomous University of Mexico. With the university as his home base, the 17-year-old traveled around Mexico, feeding his curiosity for pre-Columbian history.

While Dunn’s semester south-of-the-border could be chalked up to youthful wanderlust, he has always managed to balance his busy career with outside interests. Besides playing piano, he scuba dives, skis and plays tennis. He has been known to put up arc lights so he can tend to his garden long after the sun has set. One might be tempted to call him a Renaissance Man—but the truth is, he prefers the Medieval period. His extensive library includes the complete works of Sir Thomas Malory, which he reads in their original Middle English.

In fact, during his senior year of college, Dunn briefly considered becoming a medieval scholar instead of a doctor.

From every indication—not least of all Dunn’s 50-page résumé, which lists more than 400 articles and book chapters on surgical infectious diseases and transplantation—the Dark Ages’ loss has been modern medicine’s tremendous gain.

And the next chapter is just beginning.

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer/editor.

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