Jacobson’s Legacy: A Thriving VUMC


Dr. Harry R. Jacobson retired June 1 as vice chancellor for health affairs at Vanderbilt University. He is succeeded by Dr. Jeffrey Balser, MD’90, PhD’90, who last year was named dean of the School of Medicine.

Since Jacobson assumed leadership in 1997 of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, VUMC’s performance has exceeded expectations by nearly every measure: annual net revenue, the number of faculty and staff, space for research and patient care, and national rankings. Annual research funding quadrupled to more than $400 million.

“Harry has been one of the most visionary leaders in Vanderbilt’s history,” says Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos. “His instincts and ability to execute bold plans have forged a remarkable path of growth and success for our world-class medical center.”

“Vanderbilt is now viewed nationally as the academic center that is moving the fastest in terms of steps toward more effective science, toward more effective health care,” adds Vanderbilt’s informatics guru, Dr. Bill Stead, who chairs the Center for Better Health.

Jacobson’s view of the world was forged in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Chicago where he grew up. Born outside of Munich, Germany, he emigrated with his parents and three siblings when he was 4. His father, who had survived a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, challenged his children to do well academically.

Harry Jacobson earned his M.D. degree from the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1972 and was recruited to Vanderbilt in 1985. Within a decade he had moved up to the executive suite as deputy vice chancellor for health affairs.

Along the way he held more than $1.5 million in active grant support, published more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and a textbook on kidney disease, served on and chaired national advisory committees, and explored the corporate side of medicine through such companies as Nashville’s Renal Care Group, which he co-founded.

Under Jacobson’s leadership, Vanderbilt formed strategic partnerships with physician groups south of Nashville in Williamson County, established the multi-specialty Vanderbilt Medical Group, expanded key service lines like cancer and heart disease, raised the bar on philanthropy (a move that made possible the establishment of a free-standing Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt), improved the system’s financial performance and its focus on customer service, and launched effective branding and advertising campaigns.

Jacobson realized that a thriving clinical operation was essential to growing the medical center’s research enterprise and attracting top-notch fac-ulty and students. “We owe a lot of our ability to grow as a research enterprise … to the growth of the hospital and the clinics,” says Lawrence Marnett, director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Chemical Biology. “It has been the engine that has driven it.”

Another strategy advanced by Jacobson was the use of venture capital to encourage development and commercialization of intellectual property. In 1999 he helped establish the $10 million “Chancellor’s Fund” which, in conjunction with the university’s technology transfer office, helped launch 18 companies. A later version, the Academic Venture Capital Fund, nurtured cross-institutional projects including institutes of chemical biology and imaging science.

Now, says Jacobson, he will find other ways to contribute. “I love health care. I love science. I love the business world. And I think the blend of science, health care and business to really improve the lives of people is a lot of fun.”

For more about Jeff Balser, see the Spring 2009 issue of Vanderbilt Magazine.

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