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Weill Cornell: The Man Behind the School

In the first of an ongoing (and intermittent) series of articles, MetaEzra will explore some topics that we don't normally explore. Today, we're happy to have Ankit Patel '04, PhD '12 (the handsome man to your right), and current student-elected Overseer of Weill Cornell Medical College, talk a little bit about his home institution down in Manhattan. Please let our loyal readers be assured, however, lest Ankit sound a bit too serious and important, that during our freshman year together he was known for dangling pumpkins out of dorm room windows and swimming in Beebee Lake... naked... in the middle of December. We have pictures. -MPN

As a Cornell undergrad in spring of 2003, I attended a talk by Dr. Charles “Chuck” Bardes, Dean of Admissions from Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Bardes was a man in his mid 50’s with a jovial, soft-spoken personality whose most striking feature was a prominent bow-tie -- an appreciation for which I am slowly developing. He spoke to a room filled with anxious pre-meds looking how to customize their medical school applications to admission officer’s standards.

All of my peers were asking: “What does a medical school look for? What do you as a Dean of Admission want from a medical school applicant? What can I do to improve my odds to get into medical school?”

But through the whole session, I don’t recall once hearing about the specifics of Weill Cornell. What makes Weill Cornell…Weill Cornell?

The first question that comes to mind is who or what is Weill? Weill refers to Joan and Sanford I. Weill, two of the largest benefactors to Cornell University Medical College. In 1996, Sanford I. Weill made a transformative gift to the Medical College enabling it to rise above the financial difficulties it was facing at the time.

This was a tough time financially not only for the medical college but also New York Hospital, the teaching hospital of the Medical College. The physicians at New York Hospital generate the largest slice of the revenue pie for the medical college and thus are integral to the financial stability of the medical college. In 1996, Presbyterian Hospital -- affiliated with Columbia Medical School -- was in even worse financial condition, and consequently set up a merger with New York Hospital.

With Sandy Weill’s gift and the merger of New York and Presbyterian Hospitals, Cornell University Medical College found itself back in the black and with the resources to regain its stature. To honor the Weill’s $200 million gift, the medical college was renamed at the time to Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University (now known as Weill Cornell Medical College). At the time, it was the largest single donation made to a medical center.

With the medical college back on its feet, it was no longer a financial sinkhole for the university. As a result, the ties between the Ithaca campus and the NYC campus strengthened. Money is the quickest way to make friends.

In 1997, Weill Cornell brought in Antonio Gotto Jr. to take over the deanship of the college. As the former Chairman of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, he was known as a leader in cardiology and well equipped to take Weill Cornell to new heights. One of Gotto’s primary strengths is raising money; he has been instrumental in leading Weill Cornell through a number of “strategic plans” – all of which have been initiatives to raise additional resources for the College.

Currently, while Cornell University is amidst a $4 billion campaign, Weill Cornell’s part of the campaign totals $1.3 billion, which is the largest campaign taken on by a medical college. With the daunting task of raising $1.3 billion ahead in October 2006, Weill Cornell was in need of many transformative gifts similar to the one Sandy Weill made in 1996.

Sandy didn’t disappoint. In June 2007, a press conference was held at Weill Greenberg Center in NYC to announce a cumulative $400 million gift made to Weill Cornell. The break down was $250 million from the Weills, $50 million from Hank Greenberg and the Starr Foundation, and $100 million from an anonymous donor. Coincidentally, $50 million of Sandy’s gift would be earmarked for the Ithaca campus for the New Life Sciences Building (now Weill Hall) as part of a move to bridge the campus divide.

At the press conference, we heard from a number of Cornell’s leaders including Pete Meinig, David Skorton, and Antonio Gotto. Finally, we got to hear from Sandy Weill.

I’m not one for sappy speeches. And I’m also skeptical of people that claim recognition for their support. Often times I’m more impressed by Mr./Mrs. Anonymous’s donation than the larger donation made by a big shot. So as I sat there waiting to hear Sandy’s speech, I was ready to be under whelmed – anticipating yet another cliché speech by another one of Holden Caulfield’s “phonies”.

I listened as Sandy began talking about the importance of the medical community and the need for support of great medical centers such as Weill Cornell. And after talking about all the wonderful support Weill Cornell has garnered and the need to maintain medical care as a priority, Sandy began talking about something closer to his heart… something real.

He started describing Weill Cornell’s international endeavors and specifically the development of the Weill Bugando Medical Center in the heart of Tanzania, a product of will and support. As he started talking about Bugando his tone and demeanor changed right away. The most noticeable difference was the transformation of his carefree smile and expression to an indescribable somber expression.

He spoke about the condition of Tanzania’s health programs and the deplorable 1:20,000 ratio of doctors to inhabitants in the country. He stressed the need to support their medical education programs as the key to fixing many of the issues associated with healthcare in Tanzania. He gave accounts of his personal experiences in Tanzania and acknowledged a current Tanzanian medical student named Stella, who has become a close friend to mine over the course of many months.

And then he began to cry.

I should have taken a picture since it was probably the only time I’ll see a CEO of a company equivalent to Citigroup cry.

As the press conference died down, I realized how much Sandy Weill has done as Chairman of the Board of Overseers. He has been there to lead every meeting and has the impeccable ability to ask all the right questions. He’s able to translate his business cunning to become an astute medical and educational inquisitor. It’s all about asking the right questions, and Sandy knows which ones to ask.

The most important thing I realized was that he really cares. It goes beyond managing a business for Sandy, and he realizes the fundamental nature of medical care requires empathy. Empathy isn’t just important for the doctors and nurses directly responsible for patient care but also administrators and overseers that strive to make a medical center reach its full potential. In Cornell University Medical College’s history, no one has shown more empathy than Sandy Weill, and it is fitting that Cornell’s medical college bares his name. The Weill-Cornell Medical College.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on April 24, 2008 (#)

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