"Dean Taichman"

Written by: Russell S. Taichman, D.M.D., D.M.Sc.

July 1 marked my first anniversary as your dean. It has been an amazing and exhilarating experience filled with great highs, as well as many fun and certainly unusual challenges. If you will indulge me, I’d like to share the year from my vantage point.

For me, it all really began at my retirement party. As I was leaving the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and preparing to move to Birmingham, my dear friend and colleague, Dean Laurie McCauley, gave me a practical and prophetic parting gift – the book How to Be a Dean by George Justice. At the time, I remember wondering (jokingly) how the book could be so thick. But in the hustle and bustle of our move, I ended up packing the book away before I had a chance to read it, only to come across it in our third month of coronavirus lockdown. Nearly a year into the job, I can appreciate the many nuances that come with being a dean and the voluminous topics that, consequently, must be covered in the book. In fact, I immediately went looking for something on managing a pandemic. Chapter by chapter. I glanced through the book. I noted that chapters include, “What does a dean do?”, “The dean in the college”, “Managing down, managing up”, and “Being of value”, and an epilogue, “Knowing when to stop”. Unfortunately, I found no coverage of crisis management. I guess we must be writing that particular chapter together, as we speak.

Pandemic aside, students and residents have always been an area of great joy and intrigue for me, and that has only been magnified in my time as dean. They are here to learn and to push boundaries. When they do, we frequently learn more from them than I think they learn from the faculty. That is great stuff and the way it should be – collaborative education. The inventiveness, creativity and hard work these future colleagues engage in is inspirational. More often than I can write about, our students and residents do amazing things. They provide me with an ever-growing “points of pride” list that I enjoy sharing with our provost.

One of my primary duties as dean is the development of faculty. In the past year, we had the good fortune to promote three outstanding individuals to join us as interim or permanent department chairs – Drs. Ashraf Fouad (Endodontics), Dan Givan (Restorative Sciences), and Patrick Louis (Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery) – and Dr. Janice Jackson was named Pediatric Dentistry chair just before I arrived. We also recruited several new program directors including Drs. Raquel Mazer (Community Collaborations), Kathlyn Kruger Powell (Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery), and Ashraf Fouad (Endodontics). Appointments of deans included Drs. Perng-Ru Liu (Clinical Affairs), Carly McKenzie (Admissions), and Michelle Robinson (Senior Associate Dean). Each of these three individuals and many others have joined me in our COVID-19 war room on Zoom as we address the continuing challenges the pandemic has brought to our doorstep. Yet there remains much more work to do, as we look forward to replacing the faculty ranks who have retired or departed for wonderful academic opportunities elsewhere and to expanding the faculty within our research and teaching missions.

Under normal conditions, the staff of a dental school is the glue that binds everything together, grounding faculty and shepherding students through their academic pursuits. In fact, working with amazing staff is another great perk of the job. But these times have been anything but normal and, like the students and faculty, staff have also had the “opportunity” to go above and beyond. Amid an unprecedented pandemic, the patient care team keeps our clinics running safely and efficiently. Staff have also maintained the patient business office, IT infrastructure, and the school’s business operations – keeping them all humming along. In addition, our academic affairs staff closed out the spring and kicked off the fall terms, while the admissions team successfully enrolled our incoming students and residents while launching another recruitment season. Rolling with the punches, the continuing education team pivoted on a dime to offer courses in an online format, the Dental Assisting Program kept moving forward, and the research team worked tirelessly to bring our research activities back on line.

Meanwhile, our communications director, Lynne Jarreau, has had to perform CPR on some of my crazy communication ideas and our facilities manager, Vincent Mitchell, has been a real MacGyver, keeping our aging dental school going with duct tape and a can-do attitude (well not really duct tape, but it sometimes feels that way). My executive assistant, Tiffany Brooks, makes sure I am in the right Zoom meeting at the right time (which is no easy task), and before our lockdown, staff made sure I had my morning chuckle while keeping me well caffeinated at all times. That doesn’t even include the many other office and department staff who keep our operation running smoothly – the list goes on and on. I am so proud to work with the entire team. They have certainly risen to the challenge.

One of my more poignant experiences was the warm welcome I received from alumni. From Dothan to Huntsville and Mobile to Montgomery, enthusiastic alumni regaled me with their love of our school and university. Throughout my travels, I learned that our dental school is more than just bricks and mortar, classrooms and clinics. It has been truly fascinating to see how the school supports our state. In fact, the school makes a difference in the lives of our alumni and their families, as well as the lives of their patients. It provides access to dental care across Alabama and offers oral health care opportunities for generations of patients and providers.

In each of my interactions around the state and beyond, I have had an amazing group of professionals by my side. Scott Huffman and the members of our alumni and development team were always there to introduce me to new people and places. The team drove me hundreds of miles up and down I-65 in my first six months and critically, they treated this newbie to his first view of peanut statues (Dothan), cotton fields (Decatur), and rocket ships (Huntsville). I also experienced my first hotdog at Chris’ Landmark Hotdog and Hamburger Restaurant in Montgomery. (By the way Scott, that was an experience I am not sure I will ever forget!)

But perhaps the highlight has been working with our alumni leadership including Drs. Bruce Camp and Ben Cumbus, as well as many, many others. During Alumni Weekend, I even had the opportunity to place a gold medallion around the neck of my former mentor, Dr. Ray Williams, as he and his Class of 1970 colleagues celebrated their 50th anniversary. Dr. Williams was Chair of Periodontology at Harvard University and taught former dean Dr. Mike Reddy and I the discipline. Now here I am serving as his dean. What a thrill.

There have been so many great things about this year, but the year has also brought its share of challenges. I like to joke that my new Alabama family sure knows how to throw a “party” for the new kid in town.

Soon after I arrived, the realities of balancing a budget came into sharper focus, courtesy of our newly-hired finance director David Wilson. Together, he and I worked with a diverse group of faculty and staff to begin the process of realigning our finances under the university’s new budget model. I am proud to say that we received approval for a 3% increase in tuition. The first real increase (we believe) in nearly 10 years, this will begin to close gap between our expenditures and the real cost of educating dental students. But raising tuition is not the only approach we are going to take. We are also ready to launch, under the guidance of Dr. Liu, a pilot program to increase our student clinic productivity – that is, as soon as things get anywhere close to being “normal.” We also plan to centralize much of our purchasing to enhance our ability to buy in bulk.

To address a significant shortfall in the number of dentists in the State of Alabama, we are seeking a progressive increase of class size, from 83 graduates to 107, over the next few years. We owe a lot of the credit to Drs. Stuart Lockhart, Conan Davis, and Steve Mitchell for inspiring us with their passion, data, and “boots on the ground” knowledge of what needs to be done to improve the health of all Alabama citizens through better oral health. Raising the number of students will not only help with the state’s dental shortage, it will also help our budget bottom line.

Speaking of parties, our new life in Alabama has been like one too. In fact, it has been filled with “excitement” for the whole family. We would never have envisioned learning to navigate two lightning strikes on our home (Who says that doesn’t happen?), copperheads, and corneal burns – all in one year! Plus a teenager who, because of the lockdown, has become our resident vampire. Now that school is out, our daughter wakes up after the sun goes down and stays up until dawn talking to her friends on various social media platforms. My wife and I greet each day to discover what snacks we left out were eaten during the night and what empty dishes are now placed outside of her door awaiting the next feeding. While some might think these challenges would have gotten us down, these events have left us laughing and asking ourselves, “How is this possible? Who would have dreamed it?”

The year has been a crazy whirlwind of an experience for a freshman dean. I am grateful to be your dean and am glad we have traversed these opportunities and challenges together. I look forward to exciting and successful times ahead – but I do ask that, in the next year, we have no more “parties.” Please, please, no more parties.