Cash-strapped Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science was in critical financial condition last year, at risk of seizure by its lenders.
In the last few months, however, officials at the campus in the Willowbrook neighborhood, just south of Watts, say there's cause for optimism. The university has pulled back from the brink of insolvency and is close to selecting a new president.
The final candidate is Dr. David M. Carlisle, 56, director of the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. In that post, he has overseen the analysis of healthcare data and the monitoring of seismic safety at hospitals since 2000.
Carlisle has strong roots in L.A.: He spent part of his childhood in Baldwin Hills, where his mother still lives; he did his medical residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center; he received a doctorate in public health at UCLA; and he was a professor of medicine at UCLA between 1992 and 2000.
The choice caps a decade of tumult at Drew, which was established a year after the 1965 Watts riots to train minority physicians. The school began to fall into crisis in 2002 and was criticized for failing to have a "culture of accountability."
Drew never fully recovered after it was forced in 2006 to shut its residency program to train physicians. The loss of that program cut enrollment significantly, siphoning off a major revenue stream.
Further complicating matters was the decision to construct a new nursing school, which opened last fall, without having a plan to pay for it.
In September, a coalition of universities, hospital chains and the California Endowment teamed together to rescue the school. The existing board of trustees agreed to quit en masse, and a new board was appointed. That body included top leaders at UCLA, USC, Cedars-Sinai Health System, Kaiser Permanente and the California Endowment.
The change in leadership has had a direct effect on the school's finances. Dr. M. Roy Wilson, chairman of the board of trustees and acting president since September, said the university was able to renegotiate the terms of a $43-million loan the campus took out to build its nursing school.
Also, the University of California has released $10 million to Drew, which mostly went to help pay for the nursing school. The UC system had delayed release of the funds because of uncertainty over whether Drew would survive. The California Endowment has also donated $3.5 million to the university.
Drew officials hope the institution will soon be fully accredited again. In 2009, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges placed the institution on two-year probation. Wilson, who has said Drew cannot function as a university without accreditation, expressed confidence that the university would get good news in July.
"We couldn't be happier with the results of the site visit," Wilson said after a recent review of the school by the accreditation group.
Wilson said the possible recruitment of Carlisle "speaks to the fact that there is a tremendous amount of optimism" about Drew's future. He said the board sought a president who would not only have academic credentials but also represent the university to its South L.A. neighbors, philanthropist donors, lawmakers and health policy experts.
"I think everybody understands that Drew has had some problems in its recent history…. I want people to know that this is a new institution and judge us how we perform and what we do moving forward," Wilson said.
Carlisle said, "Drew just resonates with my interest in healthcare.... Caring for underserved communities is near and dear to my heart, and that is synonymous with the Drew mission."
Carlisle, who is African American, is expected to visit the historically black campus on Monday, and the board of trustees is expected to complete a contract with him soon after.
The last permanent president to oversee Drew was Susan Kelly, a psychologist who was the first non-minority to lead Drew. Her three-year tenure ended with the faculty chafing against her top-down style and the university on accreditation probation.