After starting construction on a new hospital last year, UC Irvine announced "the dawn of a new era in health care in Orange County," one that would catapult the school's medical programs into the rarefied atmosphere of "a Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins" and "attract the finest medical minds to our region."
Instead, a flurry of bad publicity has cast a shadow over the university's ability to recruit medical faculty, raise money for the new hospital and maintain patient trust.
Since November, UCI has been battered by revelations about serious problems in its liver, kidney and bone-marrow transplant programs, questions about cardiologists' credentials, turmoil in the anesthesiology department and alleged nepotism in hiring.
Last month, a panel of experts concluded that UCI's ambitions overshot its ability to care for its patients successfully. The panel also questioned the focus of UCI's new seven-story hospital in Orange and the "adequacy of [its] facilities and operating rooms."
Although some observers say the worst is over and accuse the media of exaggerating the school's travails, others see signs of long-term damage.
So far, the bad publicity hasn't hurt fundraising for the $371-million hospital or the university at large, said Thomas Mitchell, UCI's head fundraiser.
"One would think that things like this would cause people to step back and possibly even stand on the sidelines," he said. "Instead, gifts are coming in at record levels and record amounts."
In the last half of 2005 alone, UCI raised about the same amount it received in the entire previous year.
But Mitchell cautioned that the next few months would offer a better barometer.
UCI's share of the new hospital's price tag is $50 million, with most of the remainder coming from state bonds. Even before the controversy, UCI was having trouble raising the money. In 2003, officials said they hoped to collect the entire amount by June 2005, but later extended the deadline by three years. To date, they've pulled in about $25 million. The hospital is scheduled to open in 2009.
Several prominent donors said they steadfastly support the project, partly because UCI Medical Center is Orange County's only research hospital. "We're cognizant of the problems, but we still feel very comfortable about the program," said Kris Elftmann, founder and CEO of the Noelle Marketing Group.
Donors also expressed confidence in how UCI's new chancellor, Dr. Michael V. Drake, is handling the crisis. By all accounts, Drake, an ophthalmologist who arrived in July, is the key to UCI Medical Center's fate.
"New leadership following a trauma is often what it takes to inspire and motivate donors," said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of communications and marketing at the Council for Support and Advancement of Education, a national organization specializing in college fundraising.
If Drake follows through on his recent hint of personnel changes in the medical programs, it could help avoid a fundraising decline, Goldsmith said.
Another question mark involves UCI's ability to lure talented medical faculty.
Some potential hires will look at the situation and think, "Why step into something like that?" said Jennifer R. Grebenschikoff, a Florida-based physician recruiter.
But others might see an opportunity. "It's often easier to make a name for yourself in academia coming into a program like this than by going to a place like Stanford," said Susan Cejka, a St. Louis medical recruiter.
But she warned that UCI's tribulations, which date to a 1995 fertility clinic scandal in which doctors allegedly stole patients' embryos and eggs and implanted them in other women, sounded too widespread to be blamed on isolated individuals. "If you go to a place with systemic problems, you could ruin your career," she said.
Drake must act swiftly to clean up the mess and announce a timetable of changes in order to make UCI attractive to new hires, Grebenschikoff said.
Even then, UCI would probably have to offer signing bonuses or higher salaries to attract talent, she said.
The chancellor could also influence whether current faculty members accept offers elsewhere. As the troubles at UCI have unfolded, outside recruiters have begun urging some UCI doctors to take jobs at less-troubled institutions, sources said.
The mood on campus is mixed. Many professors are hopeful because Drake has skillfully handled the situation, said Dr. Laura Mosqueda, director of geriatrics. But others are frustrated. Some patients have asked UCI doctors to perform surgeries at other hospitals, and other physicians are getting teased by peers across the nation, said a professor who asked to remain unidentified for fear of retaliation.
So far, the problems have not led to any unusual exodus, Dr. Eugene Spiritus, chief medical officer at the hospital, said through a spokeswoman.