End of An Era
Dean Michael J. Klag reflects on his 12 years at the helm and what’s next for him and the School.
Story by Brian W. Simpson • Photos by Harry Giglio
Capping the School’s annus mirabilis of 2016, Dean Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH ’87, offered some startling news in early October. He will be stepping down as dean on June 30, 2017. In the following Q&A, Klag touches on highlights, challenges and the legacy of his remarkable tenure.
BWS: 2016 was an especially good year for the School with the Centennial and the $300 million gift founding the Bloomberg American Health Initiative. Did you always plan to go out on a high note?
MJK: I really hadn’t thought about it beforehand, but it became evident that, given the increase in NIH funding, the better financial status of the School, the vibrant state of our educational programs and the innovation throughout the institution, it was the right time. I think that the School’s arguably in the best shape ever.
BWS: A lot of people were surprised. Was this a tough decision for you to make personally?
MJK: It was hard because I love the School and I love being in this role. To do this job for 12 years has been a gift. I’ve loved every minute, but it was time to pass the gift on.
BWS: What are your priorities for the rest of your tenure?
MJK: The priorities are to finish up a number of critical tasks before the next dean starts. It’s important to have the School in the best shape possible to empower the next dean to take the School in the directions that she or he thinks are important.
BWS: Did you come in with a list of priorities when you became dean?
MJK: As a faculty member who was successful in research and as an alumnus, I wanted to make certain that we empowered faculty to succeed, recognized the pivotal contributions of staff and strengthened our ties with alumni. Re-establishing the Center for AIDS Research was an important goal. In addition, from the very beginning, I sought to have a Center for Global Health. With the strong collaboration of deans Ed Miller and Martha Hill, we did so. And it has changed the University.
Additionally, one of my goals was to make a Bloomberg School education available to more people from outside the U.S., and we’ve done that through programs in Barcelona, India, China, the Mideast, Japan and Africa.
BWS: I’m sure the Bloomberg American Health Initiative gift would be one of your proudest accomplishments.
MJK: Definitely. It is the right project for the right time, given the current concerns about health in America. It allows us to target issues that are of critical public health importance and that cry out for new solutions. And it’s the first large gift we’ve received for domestic public health work. So in that sense, it’s unique. In addition to being the right thing to do, it will make us a better school.
BWS: Early in your deanship—in 2006—you suffered a terrible tragedy, losing your wife of 31 years, Wendy Schagen Klag.
MJK: It was really tough—especially on my kids. I knew I couldn’t be a dean, and a father, and a researcher. I had to decide what to give up, and so I gave up research. The first six months after Wendy died were especially difficult. I really needed, and received, incredible support from people at the School. I felt like I had a family of a thousand people. It was wonderful. And I am proud that we were able to create the Wendy Klag Center to bring a multidisciplinary focus to autism and neurodevelopmental disabilities and to honor her memory.
BWS: As dean, you’re the fundraiser-in-chief for the School.
MJK: Certainly, at times, you spend the majority of your effort doing that. Other times, relatively little. Being dean during a time when the NIH budget fell substantially in real dollars meant that philanthropy became increasingly important. I am proud that, through the generosity and hard work of many, philanthropic gifts to the School over the last 11 years have exceeded $1.3 billion.
BWS: During your tenure, the School grew tremendously in revenue, education programs, students, etc. Was growing the School a major goal for you?
MJK: Growth for growth’s sake was never an explicit goal, but rather my intent was always to facilitate the work of our faculty and staff in carrying out our mission. As we identified new problems, it was clear that we had to develop programs in those areas.
BWS: You’ve also made Baltimore a real priority.
MJK: When I became dean, I made it clear to our faculty that domestic work, especially work done in Baltimore, was as important as anything we do. I’ve always said we have faculty who work in Bangladesh and in Baltimore on very similar issues. The factors that determine health are not specific to one neighborhood, or one city, or one nation. And so increasingly, I see that integration of what we do here in our local community with what we do in distant communities.
BWS: What about the School’s education and practice efforts during your tenure?
MJK: My belief is that the School has never been as strong in education or in practice as it is now. We have increasing number of applicants to our degree programs. Integrating the technology and techniques that we developed for distance learning into the classroom has strengthened our pedagogy. Our success in OpenCourseWare and in massive online open courses has taught us the power of influencing people at a distance with a light touch, as well as the intensive effort that we put into our formal degree programs.
And now, we are developing new online degree programs, one in geospatial analysis, through the Online Programs for Applied Learning (OPAL). I think we’re seeing innovation here at the School like we’ve never seen before.
BWS: And practice?
MJK: Practice activities at the School are strong and vibrant. Having former Congressman Henry Waxman as the Centennial Policy Scholar, for example, has been fantastic. And we have great leadership, both at the associate dean and department chair levels. In addition, the Bloomberg American Health Initiative will strengthen our practice efforts even more and increase our impact incredibly.
BWS: You’ll be taking an 18-month sabbatical. Any plans?
MJK: I’m really not thinking much about it because I have a lot of work to do before June 30th, but I am looking forward to reflecting on the last 12 years and thinking about what path I take next. My plan is to spend some time at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as well as at the Johns Hopkins-Universitat Pompeu Fabra campus in Barcelona. In addition, I will continue to serve on a number of not-for-profit boards. But I am definitely starting with some concentrated family time, something I have not had enough of during the last 12 years!
BWS: Any advice for the incoming dean?
MJK: Well, I think that there are many ways to lead, and you have to lead in a way that’s true to your beliefs, and yourself.
BWS: So on June 30th, will you feel a huge sense of relief or remorse?
MJK: Neither. Rather, I think pride and a bittersweet feeling, because it’s such a great, great job. I mean, I just love it every day. But it’s time. So I think I’ll feel happy, but sad, and proud, and know that the School is going to continue to affect lives around the world.