Dr. Paula Termuhlen took the helm of the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine (WMed) on May 1, succeeding founding Dean Dr. Hal Jenson, who retired after 10 years at the post. Just one month into Termuhlen’s tenure, Western Michigan University announced a historic, anonymous $550 million gift to the university over the course of 10 years. WMed will receive $300 million of the donation, the largest gift ever bestowed upon a public university. MiBiz spoke with Termuhlen on how she plans to use the funds and where WMed is heading after reaching its 10-year milestone.
What were your thoughts as WMed received such transformational funding a month after you started as dean?
The exciting part is realizing that one of the biggest challenges we face in medicine today is really creating health equity for all and that every medical school plays a role in that.
Now, we really get to create an identity and what we can be known for. To have this gift arrive and recognize the work that we needed to do, we can create an inspirational and aspirational vision around health equity. I’m so excited. This now gives us the opportunity to take a young school and really do something transformational with our space.
The challenge now is: This is hard work and we’re going to expect to be held accountable by not just our benefactors, but also our community to do this work and do it at a high level and be responsible for the stewardship around a gift like this.
Are any other medical schools taking this focused approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, or is WMed seeking to create the blueprint?
People are doing a lot of really good work, and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the historically black colleges and universities and their medical schools are a part of this system — they have owned this work forever. It’s part of their DNA, it’s why they exist. Having said that, having a school like ours that is a smaller and private school in the Midwest — no one else is doing this work and we have the opportunity to do it.
You mentioned that you hope to use the donation for financial assistance for WMed students. Is financial need the biggest barrier in accessing a medical school education?
It’s one of the most pressing needs, but it’s not the only pressing need. Here’s a reality: I’m a first-generation college student and I just paid off my student loans the same month I became the dean of a medical school. This happens in families that don’t have resources where their students finally get into medical school and maybe they’re first-generation college students. This is commonly seen in underrepresented and minority populations. And not just students of color, but other diversity measures.
It’s about creating wealth for families over time. (Financial aid) allows them to take their resources and spend it on their children so, generationally, you can continue to create economic capacity within families.
And paying tuition is just part of the financial dilemma of attending medical school?
Particularly with students that come in and are of a lower socioeconomic status. Let’s say they get the tuition money and they get some financial aid for living expenses. Often that doesn’t cover everything. There are several schools around the country now that are starting to understand what it means to have food insecurity within their student population. We actually have medical schools that will create food shelves and so forth. I can’t speak explicitly for WMed except that I know it exists. I don’t have our data about that yet, but it is real and now we’re having national conversations about what we are doing with our medical students as they’re trying to become young physicians and also worrying if they will have enough to eat.
What’s next now that WMed has reached the 10-year milestone?
We have to do a good job of figuring out how to create a physician workforce that reflects and understands the people we serve. That really does focus on the diversity, equity, inclusion and justice component. We need to do some work to really hardwire how we get that work done and then we can actually think about, ‘Ok, let’s grow some more, let’s expand our classes and do some more.’ At the moment, the bottleneck is our ability to identify clinical sites within our two hospital partners and within some of the communities in Southwest Michigan where we have relationships. As time goes on, we’re looking for opportunities and partners to expand. We’ll be on the lookout while we do this work on the front.
Does WMed track where its graduates eventually go to work? If so, has the school been successful in keeping graduates in Michigan?
We are so young. After you graduate medical school, you still have to do additional medical training in your specialty. We only have one class that has barely made it out of the door and not even a full class because some of them are still in training. However, this is absolutely critical to our work. This is something that most schools track in some ways, but for me personally, my dream is that we’re not only just tracking where people are practicing and serving communities but I also want to know how they’re doing that. We’re going to be tracking all of this very, very carefully as time goes on.