January 24, 2019

UCLA Med Sciences Leader Steps Down

In the 1940s, young Gerald Levey looked with awe at his family physician. Over the years, Dr. Samuel Rosenstein made regular house calls to Levey’s Jersey City home, including trips to sew Levey’s severed finger and set his broken nose.

“He had a presence and a sensitivity,” said Levey, who decided as a child to become a physician.

Levey stepped down recently after 15 years as chancellor of UCLA Medical Sciences and dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine. During his tenure, Levey faced challenges and saw advances in medicine that his role model could never have imagined.

An internist and endocrinologist, Levey came to UCLA in 1994 after stints with pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. When he arrived, hospital and medical school leadership were at odds and the viability of the hospital was in question. In addition, the Northridge earthquake had delivered irreparable damage to the university’s medical center.

Prior to hiring Levey, university leadership decided to combine responsibility for the hospital and medical school.

“It’s an idea which was ahead of its time,” Levey said. The arrangement, along with his leadership skills, enabled Levey to unite the disparate groups under a common goal.

But while the internal rifts were relatively easy to solve, the medical center’s physical challenges took much longer to remedy.

“I didn’t realize the transformative effect the earthquake would have on the job and on the institution,” Levey said.

He spent the next 14 years birthing the new medical center — planning new buildings and revamping existing ones; negotiating with FEMA; raising and borrowing money; hiring architects and overseeing construction.

On June 29, 2008, Levey — along with his team — saw these efforts come to fruition with the opening of the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, a more than $800 million, state-of-the-art medical complex, which encompasses the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA and Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.

While the new hospital was his “greatest satisfaction,” Levey said the achievement providing “sheer euphoria” was securing a $200 million endowment from David Geffen, for whom the medical school was renamed in 2002. 

“To receive an unrestricted gift of such magnitude to support programs, faculty and students was invaluable,” he told UCLA Medicine magazine. “It secured the financial future of the school for generations to come.”

Colleagues and donors alike credit Levey’s success to his personal qualities.

“He’s a man of great integrity,” said Dr. David Feinberg, CEO of the UCLA Hospital System. “There was a donor who came to him about naming one of the floors in the new hospital. 

Another donor subsequently approached him about naming that same floor, for a much greater amount of money. Dr. Levey told the first donor, ‘I made the pledge to you — it’s yours.’ His word is his word.”

While UCLA is clearly Levey’s passion, he and his wife — Dr. Barbara Levey, UCLA assistant vice chancellor of biomedical affairs — don’t restrict their activities to the university. The couple is active with the American Jewish Committee and was honored by the organization in the fall. The couple are also involved in social action activities at Sinai Temple, are members of The Jewish Federation’s King David Society, and support the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish National Fund.

Despite his achievements at UCLA, Levey notes that his successor, Dr. A. Eugene Washington, faces a host of challenges. They include decreased funding from the state, the need for seismic renovations to remaining health sciences structures and adaptation to health care reform — in whatever form it takes.

“I would have hoped to see universal health care … I believe health care is a right of everyone who lives in this country,” Levey said.

On the positive side, Levey sees great potential for preventive medicine, thanks to the ability of genetics to identify disease susceptibility.

Regarding his personal future, Levey has numerous plans. He will remain dean emeritus, a tenured professor of medicine and Lincy Foundation Distinguished Service Chair at UCLA. He also plans to collaborate with former administrative vice chancellor and vice chancellor of capital programs Peter Blackman to document construction that has occurred on
the Health Science Campus since the 1980s. 

In addition, Levey hopes to write a book exploring the qualities necessary for successful leadership of large academic medical centers. He may adapt this material to create a course for UCLA’s management or medical schools.

And he has one other item on his agenda: “Whatever it is that I do, I want to in some way impact the lives of young people,” he said. “I hope I can play some mentoring role.”