In January of this year, Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi was named the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and Cornell University’s provost for medical affairs. In 2013, Dr. Choi was recruited to chair what is now the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Department of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine and became physician-in-chief of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Prior to coming to Weill Cornell, Dean Choi was a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. His wife, fellow physician-scientist Dr. Mary Choi, is an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Nephrology and Hypertension here.
Dean Choi recently sat down with Larry Schafer, vice provost for external affairs, to speak about the transformative impact of philanthropy on the institution and his vision for how donor support will make future growth achievable for Weill Cornell Medicine.
LS: What type of support do you think is going to be most meaningful for philanthropy, moving forward? Where do you see philanthropy fitting in, in the most meaningful way?
AC: Well, in the old days, philanthropy could have been referred to as “icing on the cake.” But in this era, there is no question that fundraising is critical to supporting all three parts of our institution’s mission: Care. Discover. Teach. In order to plan strategically for the future, at a time when there can be cuts and other risks for reductions in funding, we need philanthropy to maintain our momentum. So philanthropy is no longer just “icing”; it is the cake.
LS: What are some areas that may serve as unique funding opportunities for our institution, going forward?
AC: In the last 20 years, through a series of strategic plans, Weill Cornell has transformed itself. This could not have been done without visionary leadership and exceptional donor support. Today, we are part of an elite class of academic medical centers nationwide with strong translational research programs in areas of critical medical need. We now have world-class research in cancer, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, neuroscience, Alzheimer’s disease, precision medicine and children’s health that will drive forward improvements in clinical care. Now we have the capacity, the faculty and the scientific foundation to really accomplish great things. Five years ago, when the Belfer Research Building was being built, we didn’t have many of those programs – not at the level they are now. So our job now is to continue to invest in and grow these key areas so that we can remain at the forefront of academic medicine.
LS: What do you see as some of the greatest challenges and opportunities for Weill Cornell Medicine?
AC: One of our main challenges is to determine the best ways for us to continue to grow all parts of our three-pronged mission to care, discover and teach. Through thoughtful planning, our clinical footprint has expanded significantly the last few years as we have opened new physician practice offices on the Upper West Side and lower Manhattan, as well as in Queens and Brooklyn. Our research enterprise has experienced an impressive surge in productivity and NIH funding now that we have nearly filled the Belfer Research Building. And our new medical education curriculum has truly transformed the way we teach. So now we need to move very swiftly to begin planning for our next phase of growth and evolution. There are many opportunities to consider, but having adequate space for our programs is one of our largest challenges. You always hear that in New York City, there is more money than available real estate. As dean, I definitely find that to be the case and we will need to find ways to more efficiently use the space we already have and explore new opportunities to identify additional space to enable us to fulfill our mission. Without a doubt, philanthropy is essential to helping us plan effectively for the future. The gifts we receive from our generous donors support programs and ideas that make Weill Cornell the innovative institution it is.
LS: Student debt burden has become a real concern for institutions of higher learning. Since 2010, Weill Cornell has raised about $8 million each year in funds dedicated to student scholarships. How do you hope to lessen that concern for medical students who choose to enroll here?
AC: This is an important issue to me. At Weill Cornell, medical students carry an average debt load of $149,000, which is less than the national average for medical students attending private schools. I think the real tragedy is when students are forced to pick a specialty based on economics, rather than upon their true passion. For example, salaries in the areas of primary care, pediatrics and internal medicine are not as high as in surgical services. And some students who may love the field of primary care may not choose to enter that field if they have a $200,000 student loan debt. We need to fix this problem, and so far, Weill Cornell is doing well in that regard. But even so, it is my hope that continued donor support will further reduce our students’ debt load.
LS: One of the things that makes Weill Cornell Medicine great, in my opinion, are its people, including the patients, volunteers and donors. Although there are responsibilities, and business to accomplish, we seem to do it all like a family.
AC: Absolutely. First, this is a friendly place to work, let me tell you. When Mary and I first moved to New York and became a part of the Weill Cornell community, we were a little taken aback. People would just greet you everywhere – on elevators, in hallways – everywhere! Weill Cornell is the friendliest place I have been a part of, bar none.
Second, our Board of Overseers, volunteers and donors are truly engaged here. Many of our supporters know that we need certain resources, and our donors are right there for us. Our Board of Overseers and other donors are lovely people, and truly like a family. I’m looking forward to everything we will accomplish together.