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Drew University board resigns and appoints new members

The board of the beleaguered Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science resigned Friday, at the same time leaders of universities, hospitals and a foundation stepped in to try to rescue the South Los Angeles area campus from financial disaster.

The action was a dramatic last-ditch effort to save the 44-year-old university — founded to train physicians to serve underserved, minority communities — from its lenders. The school was at risk of seizure because it was not expected to make loan and insurance payments on $43 million borrowed to build a state-of-the-art nursing school, which opened last month.

The outgoing Board of Trustees appointed new members Friday that include top leaders at UCLA, USC, Cedars-Sinai Health System, Kaiser Permanente, hospital chain Catholic Healthcare West and the California Endowment, a foundation dedicated to expanding healthcare access to the underserved. Four members of the old board were reappointed as well.

Dr. Keith Norris is resigning as interim president and will resume his full-time post heading research at Drew. A new president has not yet been appointed.

The new 11-member board will be led by Dr. M. Roy Wilson, a former chancellor at the University of Colorado- Denver. The outgoing trustees also created a new panel, the Board of Councilors, which will advise the trustees and be headed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“It’s just an unprecedented rallying to [Drew’s] future,” said Dr. Robert Ross, the California Endowment’s president and a new member of the Board of Councilors. “The challenges are serious, but everyone agrees things are fixable and we will work our way through this.”

Ridley-Thomas said that if the groups assembled can’t fix the school’s problems “then I’d have to conclude the job can’t be done.”

Drew, established a year after the 1965 Watts riots, has faced numerous crises in recent years, particularly the divorce of the university from Los Angeles County in 2006. County officials cut off the university from its teaching hospital, Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, after the facility was cited for repeatedly putting patients in danger of injury and death.

That separation severed Drew’s students guaranteed access to a training hospital, slashing overall enrollment in half. The drop caused Drew to lose almost $1 million a month by 2008. That same year, the university broke ground for the nursing school, optimistic that things would turn around. Although significant layoffs have since stabilized finances, the university still had no way to make required payments for the nursing school.

Amid the financial difficulties, leadership at the school has been tumultuous. Susan Kelly ended a turbulent three-year term as president in 2009, after a vote of no confidence by the school’s professors, who disliked what they saw as her prickly, top-down management style. Before she left, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges put Drew on a two-year probation.

Bart Williams, the outgoing chairman of the Board of Trustees, acknowledged mistakes in recent years, including suing the county over the split, which he said created hard feelings over the need to bring back a teaching hospital in the Watts-Willowbrook area.

But Williams said he stood behind the decision to build the nursing school, despite the construction leading to the current fiscal crisis.

“If you take a look at the building and the promise that it holds, I don’t regret that one bit,” he said.

The dramatic reorganization announced Friday got its start when Williams and Norris reached out to the California Endowment and Ridley-Thomas, hoping to rescue Drew, Ross said. But he added that it was clear a wholesale leadership change was needed.

“It was clear … that absent such changes, we would not see this university capable of steering through the fiscal challenges, as well as the academic challenges,” Ross said.

One expectation is that as a result of the leadership change, the University of California might resume its previous level of financial support to Drew. UC and Drew have had a longstanding partnership, but turmoil at Drew had clogged up the flow of dollars from UC over the last year or so, Ross said.

Resumption of payments would give Drew some breathing room to meet loan payments, he said. Building a long-term road to financial stability is a task for the new Board of Trustees, Ross said.

“Charles Drew is an institution with a critically important legacy to address health needs in South Los Angeles. And we need to make sure that this troubled institution can restore itself to a vibrant future,” Ross said.

ron.lin@latimes.com


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