The University of Nebraska Medical Center

An Interview with Dr. Harold M. Maurer, M.D., The Chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
By Greg Dyche and John Jenkins, Creighton University MBA students

Our impression following the interview with Dr. Maurer is that he is right where he belongs. He accepted the office of Chancellor on December 1st,

1998. Dr. Maurer’s vision for UNMC to become a world-class academic health sciences center seems possible with him at the lead. We think you’ll agree after reading a summary of the interview.

Can you briefly explain your background in Omaha and duty as Chancellor at UNMC?

I have been in Nebraska for 15 years, and Chancellor at UNMC for almost 11 years. The University of Nebraska is split up into four campuses, each with its own Chancellor. Every month the Chancellors and the System President meet to go over things that are important for the whole university.

What do you like best about your work?

What I like most about my work is to be able to develop big ideas– the creative part of the job. Everyday I ask the question, am I initiating or am I responding?‟ If I am initiating I feel good. If I am responding all day, then we are really going nowhere; we are just keeping the “train running.”

What kind of big ideas do you initiate?

Some examples would be: the College of Public Health, our interest in international educational research, building quality into the education program, and the Academy of Teaching Scholars. Implementing big ideas such as these drive me to perform everyday.

What does “ethics” mean to you?

To me, ethics are a persons‟ own principles and values. They include things like integrity, honesty and trustworthiness. The most important thing to me is to keep your worth and be fair with what is going on. Those are principles, that as a leader, you cannot break. If someone tells me they are going to do something and they do not follow through, they are “done” in my mind. In terms of implementing my ethics in my job, I am basically a physician. I took an oath called the Maimonides Oath. That basically says that you do the best for the patient, night and day. That is what I expect for people to do. The other principle that I follow is called “primum non nocere,” which means “do no harm.”

Having worked on the east coast, do you think Omaha holds ethics to a higher standard?

Yes, absolutely. The people in Omaha that I deal with respect my directness and honesty. Omaha is the type of place that you can do business with a handshake and count on it going through. That is very important to me, because I always do what I say I will.

My experience with people on the East Coast is that they were sincere, but were very suspicious. They tended to be more governed by the “almighty buck.” I found they may have ulterior motives, so it was important to “read between the lines” when dealing with them.

“Do a good job everyday and good things will happen to you.” Dr. Maurer, Chancellor UNMC.

Can you describe an ethical situation in business that was easy to handle?

We often get admission requests from prominent members of the community. They will say that my “so and so” will be the world’s best doctor. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times those are problem cases.

One time a very high official called me up and said “my niece wants to apply to medical school.” I told him to send me her transcript. I took a look at it, called this person, and told her not to bother applying. Do you know what she told me? “Thanks for telling me.” She appreciated my directness. She wanted to know something, she got the straight answer, and that was the end of it. This type of situation happens quite often.

Another easy situation involves a failing medical resident. The resident was doing so poorly that the Department dismissed the resident. The resident came to see me, and I asked the Department to send me all of his information. After looking through all the information, I realized there was no due-process implemented in his dismissal. I told the Department that they needed to reinstate the resident, find him a mentor and then see what happens. After six months of reinstatement with the mentor, he was still failing. After that, he was dismissed. The whole problem was that there was no due-process, so he was not given the fair chance that everyone deserves.

Can you describe an ethical situation that was difficult to handle?

One difficult ethical situation involved the use of hate language. We had two staff members who were in the same department, and developed a friendship. After an argument, their friendship turned into using hate language directed towards each other’s religion. The problem bubbled up through HR and then to me. When I asked HR how they thought they should handle the situation, they said they simply needed to counsel the people involved. I told them that counseling was not enough, because we do not tolerate hate language in this organization. We brought in our policy people and lawyers, but at that time both staff members left. If they had not decided to leave, we would have had a very difficult situation on our hands. The reason being that there was not a direct policy in place yet that said what we should do in this situation. While we have moral guidelines that we follow, we do not have policies for every situation. The problem in this situation was the policy was made after-the-fact.

Another difficult situation involved one of our researchers that published an article to a journal. The editor of the journal called me up and said that most of this article had been previously published, and one of the readers knows the original author. The first thing I did was call in the researcher and set up a team and put together a team to dissect exactly what he did. At the end of the day we removed the article from publication. We set up a year-long censorship that requires all of his works to go through a committee before it can be published to make sure that it does not happen again.

The biggest ethical dilemma we are dealing with now involves regenerative medicine, specifically stem-cell research. The ethical dilemma of deciding whether or not we are killing babies or saving lives is especially difficult because there is a point to each side. Our position is that these tissues are being discarded, and we ask the question, “do we want to throw them in the trash can or use them to cure diseases such as diabetes, spinal injury, heart disease and alzheimers.” This issue is complex because it involves both morality and politics. The issue we are dealing with now involves the relationship between our Board of Regents and the State Legislature. The Board of Regents works independently of the State Legislature, and can therefore put restrictions on our work that may be aloud on the national level. Currently, the Right to Life Group is lobbying the Board of Regents with the hope of putting additional restrictions on our research. If the Board of Regents places

restrictions on stem-cell research, we cannot apply for any federal grants regarding research in this area. Therefore, we cannot recruit anybody to conduct the research, and the researchers we have now will want to leave to do their research elsewhere. We would be targeted by the rest of the country as a backward state. This would have wide spread implications for the entire university.

If you were morally objected to the idea of stem-cell research, would that impact your decision to pursue research at UNMC?

No. My position as Chancellor is to do what is good for the medical center and the people of Nebraska. If it happens to hurt my point of view, religious or otherwise, it is irrelevant. It is my duty to do what is good for the medical center and people of Nebraska.

Has there been an ethical mentor in your past?

My parents helped me develop my sense of right and wrong. They were very honest and straight-forward. To them, there was no grey area between what was right and wrong. Additionally, as I went through college and medical school, I would watch how people acted and then analyze the situations. This exercise helped me develop a solid ethical framework. One important thing I learned from watching people was how to talk to people without being offensive. For example, instead of telling someone they are an idiot, ask them “what lead you to this approach?”

What advice can you give the upcoming leaders of today?

Right now, it seems like everyone is driven towards making profits. If you do a good job everyday ethically, whether it is in your personal life or career, good things will happen to you. Do not worry so much about where you will be in the future, just do a good job everyday. It is very simple.