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The Dean of Change : Dr. Gerald Levey's job keeps him moving at a hyper pace. His daunting task: to see that UCLA medical school stays on top --despite a tight budget.


At a damask-draped table in Michael Ovitz's extravagant living room, the dean of the UCLA School of Medicine studies his spinach omelet as Hollywood's most famous talent broker pitches the scholarly physician as his latest discovery.

"You want to know how many UCLA deans I've worked with? Three. Three deans and I'll tell you right now, they keep getting better. Better and better. And Jerry here--he's like an energy ball! He can do what has to be done! He's spectacular! Just what UCLA needs! A leader. A spec-tac-ular leader! Ask anyone! No one says 'No' for Jerry. Believe it!"

Dr. Gerald Levey--Harvard Fellow, NIH researcher, distinguished professor and medical provost--smoothes his cream-colored napkin across his lap and smiles at his hyperbolic host.

"Why, thank you, Michael. But, really, I'm not. . . ."

"Hey, I'm the best agent you'll ever have," cracks Ovitz, a UCLA alum who until becoming president of the Walt Disney Co. in August was probably the best agent anybody anywhere could have.

And Levey, effusive or un-, is extremely grateful to have him.

As the supremely generous and well-connected chairman of the medical school's star-studded advisory board, Ovitz is more than an advance man for the less flamboyant dean. He is the wizard who can conjure up the money and the magic to do what Levey and Ovitz both want: to make UCLA the premier medical school in the nation. Driving back to his office after another power breakfast with Ovitz, Levey opens the sunroof of his green Lexus and marvels at the weather and his own good fortune.

"Quite amazing, I would have to say."

Michael Ovitz or the California sun?

"Both, I would have to say."


Gerald Saul Levey, 59, got the call two years ago last fall. He remembers it vividly because, he says, it was "the call I'd been waiting for all my career."

Levey was senior vice president for medical and scientific affairs at the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. when UCLA's Andrea Rich asked him to come west. "We were looking for someone quite extraordinary," she says, "so extraordinary, in fact, that many people didn't think we could find all we needed in just one person."

What UCLA needed was someone to take over the newly merged roles of medical school dean and provost for medical sciences. The job required a physician with scientific expertise, impeccable academic credentials and business acumen.

"What the job required, it turned out, was Jerry Levey," says Rich, the former UCLA vice chancellor who is now president of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Levey's career moves, from endocrinology research at the National Institutes of Health to academia to private industry, landed him quickly on the short list of candidates. But what landed him the job were his unflagging optimism and healthy appetite for change.

At UCLA, like so many other academic medical institutions in the '90s, change is a constant.

It has been struggling to deliver state-of-the-art medical care in an increasingly cutthroat marketplace. In addition to the state's lingering economic woes, revenue from government programs is declining, and managed care networks are dictating their own definitions of quality care.

As a result, the top-rated medical center's $400-million budget has been stretched to finance the university's strong research and teaching. At the same time, UCLA is being squeezed by HMOs and insurance companies over the medical center's charges for its highly successful transplant programs and other high-tech care.

Such pressures have forced the medical center to trim $45 million from its operating budget and eliminate 1,000 jobs over the last several years. In such turbulent times, less optimistic physicians are opting for early retirement. Many of those who remain are in a state of high anxiety.

But not Levey.

"I absolutely love it. To me, when you enter a time of change, there are great opportunities. Change can be a challenge, a gift! If there were no challenge, what would have been the point in me coming to UCLA?"

Within months of Levey's arrival in September 1994, several high-ranking medical administrators left. The departures included the director of the UCLA Medical Center for Health Sciences as well as the chiefs of the Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, which had been plagued by budget and accreditation problems and questions about patient protection in research experiments.

Levey did not apologize for the shake-ups. "We are building a new paradigm of management," he told reporters. "Internal shifts are to be expected."

Levey has his critics, of course--among them, those who cannot or will not move at Levey's hyper pace. "I think's he's got a lot to prove," says one. "He's very action-oriented, very decisive, very quick. But, in the long run, time will test the quality of the action."

For Levey supporter and PET scan inventor Dr. Michael Phelps, the new dean is making "the tough choices" necessary to guarantee UCLA's future.

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