Blue balloons, 100 of them, danced in the hot summer sun that day along the perimeter of Morehouse School of Medicine.
It was a big moment for the school and for Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, who this year marked her fifth anniversary as the School of Medicine’s president and dean, the first female to hold that job in the school’s history. The sense of accomplishment was palpable. For nearly two decades, the board of trustees had sought to increase the number of entering freshmen to the school, but each time, changes in leadership put the process on hold.
The class size — to the delight of some — stalled repeatedly at just 56.
But Montgomery Rice had bigger plans.
At a town hall meeting in 2014 prior to being named dean and president of the school, she announced plans to increase that number to 100 over five years.
Now, just three years after she moved into the school’s top spot, they were about to welcome their first class of 100 aspiring doctors.
In her mind, the School of Medicine could serve as a model for other medical schools to understand and train the health care professionals the nation needs, especially where black men are concerned. In addition, she wanted to streamline the school’s work to better prepare prospective students; focus its research efforts and enhance research facilities; and expand campus facilities to accommodate the growth in class size and research.
The gasps in the audience were audible as faculty and staff members mumbled their disapproval. A few raised questions about where the money would come from to accomplish such a lofty goal. More importantly, how would the larger enrollment impact student success?
Since its founding in 1975, the medical school had taken great pride in having a holistic admissions process that allowed it to recruit students, mostly African Americans, that other schools overlooked.
Dr. Janice Herbert-Carter, chair of the school’s Department of Medical Education, was concerned more numbers would compromise not just that but the nurturing family atmosphere that had made it successful and special.
“If you have 50 people, it’s easier to make connections,” Herbert-Carter said. “Part of the reason we’ve been so successful is our faculty puts in so much time. We have handmade doctors. It’s not an assembly line.”
Assessing the challenges
A graduate of both Harvard Medical School and Emory, where she completed her residency in 1991, Montgomery Rice shot up the career ladder, becoming an assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility and then director of the clinical trials unit at the University of Kansas. Increasingly, she was being sought out to speak on women’s health issues, conduct drug trials for pharmaceutical companies and serve on panels for the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In 2003, she became chair of the OB-GYN department at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. There she rebuilt the residency training program, recruited eight new faculty members, and secured a grant to start the Center for Women’s Health Research.
In March 2006, just months after her mother’s death, she accepted the offer to become dean of the medical school at Meharry.
It didn’t last. Meharry got a new president who, when she refused to resign, fired her.
Fifteen months later in 2011, she arrived at Morehouse as the new dean and executive vice president. She immediately received notice that the medical school’s surgery program was facing probation because there was no department head.
She sought more information from department leaders. What were the challenges they faced and how might they turn them into opportunities?
The department was already in the process of hiring a new leader. Montgomery Rice accelerated the process, recruiting Dr. Ed Childs from Scott & White Hospital/Texas A&M Health Science Center and giving him the resources he needed to hire more surgeons and expand the school’s clinical opportunities for students and residents.
“That put us on the road to success,” she said.
Today MSM not only has the highest percentage of female surgeons of color in the United States, it leads the robotic surgery program at Grady Memorial Hospital, providing state-of-the-art care to some 250 patients annually.
In many ways, Montgomery Rice represented a new day at the School of Medicine.
Not only was she now one of the first black women in the U.S. to be named president and dean of a medical school, succeeding John Maupin in July 2014, but she was putting forth some rather ambitious goals.
The next summer in a classroom across the hall from the office she occupied as dean, she welcomed her first class of 78 medical students, the largest in Morehouse School of Medicine’s history.
Students in white coats filled the front desks. Doctors, charged with training that new crop of physicians, took the desks behind them. Other personnel — the dean of student affairs, directors of admissions and financial aid — stood along the walls.
“Many of you have wanted to be a doctor since you were in the womb and you have been plotting your course,” she told them that day. “We hope we will assist you in converting your passion to your purpose.”
Five years later, members of that class have moved on, taking their rightful place among residents here and across the country.
Montgomery Rice has moved on, too, still working to fulfill what she has long understood as her purpose: making sure that every day she does something to make a difference in someone else’s life, especially aspiring physicians.
As part of that, creating a space for them to realize their dream has been paramount, and she has done it not once, but thrice in the past three years, surpassing even her own goal.
How did she do it?
“We were very focused and intentional,” she said. “We held focus groups that met with stakeholders, primarily students, faculty and staff and asked them what would this feel like and what support will you need to support and advance our students? We met with the state Legislature and governor and showed them that the expansion of students was aligned with the needs of the state to address access to health care issues.”
The facts easily bolstered Montgomery Rice’s argument — 68% of MSM students, for instance, chose to practice in underserved communities and 65% to 70% chose primary care and or a critical specialty need such as emergency medicine, general surgery or obstetrics-gynecology.
Continued investment in the school would benefit the state for years to come.
Not only has the state continued to increase Morehouse’s operating grant, in 2016 it made a one-time $35 million investment to the school under Gov. Nathan Deal and early this year appropriated $500,000 to help create the Morehouse School of Medicine Maternal Mortality Center of Excellence.
If those outside the medical school were buying into her vision, those inside were struggling mightily to believe they could handle more students and whether Montgomery Rice could actually deliver on the promise of additional resources, human capital, and the additional clinical sites the numbers demanded.
Early on, Montgomery Rice had been introduced to some of Atlanta’s biggest movers and shakers, baseball legend Hank Aaron and his wife, Billye Suber Aaron, UPS Chairman and CEO David Abney and others.
Could she leverage those relationships and increase philanthropic gifts to the medical school?
In 2015, the Aarons donated $3 million to help fund expansion of the Hugh Gloster Medical Education building and create the Billye Suber Aaron Student Pavilion. Their gift was matched by the Woodruff Foundation and a $1 million gift from MSM’s board of trustees.
A year before, Billye Aaron helped raised more than $600,000 in scholarships through the Phenomenal Women Luncheon, honoring the School of Medicine. Of the 1,000 women who gave, more than 50% continue to do so.
Overall, gifts to the school from corporations, individuals and alumni have increased 164% to $48.1 million from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2019.
Those resources will be used to support the school’s efforts increasing class size, decreasing student debt, expanding academic facilities, developing a regional campus now underway in Columbus, Georgia, and investing in academic and research programs to help eliminate health disparities in underserved populations.
Increasing the number of black health care professionals, black men in particularly, is central to those efforts.
In the 2017-18 academic year, for instance, Montgomery Rice said there were only 257 U.S.-born black males who attended medical school out of total of 10,000 men who attended nationwide.
“We know that this impacts not only the learning environment, it also impacts the quality of care diverse people receive when they don’t have the opportunity to receive care from a culturally competent diverse workforce,” she said. “More black males are needed and we plan to address that by focusing our efforts on recruiting and retaining more in line with our mission to create a more diverse workforce.”
‘Her reputation precedes her’
The number of black males entering the medical school is beginning to creep upward.
In June when Montgomery Rice welcomed the third crop of 100 students in three years, 44 were male and 22 of those
were African American. That compares to 26 in 2018 and 25 in 2017.
Jamil Joyner, a 24-year-old graduate of Chamblee High School, was in that second class of 100. His best friend Jeffery Byrd is a member of the first.
After finishing undergraduate work at Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine was his first choice, mostly because the school fit with his mission of serving underserved communities but also because of Montgomery Rice.
Joyner said he often heard “there’s a bad sister over there, so her reputation precedes her.”
As he prepared to begin the first week of his second year recently, Joyner said his opinion hasn’t changed.
“She’s fierce about her students and advocating for them,” he said.
So too are the faculty and staff, Joyner said, who make a “concerted effort to create a family environment.”
For 29 years, Herbert-Carter has been at the center of that effort, often marking important student milestones like weddings and baby showers beyond the School of Medicine’s campus.
“Our faculty is working extremely hard to provide students the same level of nurturing and the same quality of education that we used to with 50 students,” she said. “Morehouse School of Medicine has a reputation for being primarily caring. That’s still our goal.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.