A New Day: Catherine Gilliss Returns to Lead UCSF School of Nursing

October 2017

Catherine L. Gilliss (photo by Elisabeth Fall) For this month’s Dean’s Blog, we speak with Catherine L. Gilliss, PhD, RN, FAAN – the new dean of the UC San Francisco School of Nursing. A national nursing leader, Gilliss will also serve as associate vice chancellor for nursing affairs at UCSF. Over the last two and a half decades, she has been dean at Yale University School of Nursing (1998-2004) and Duke University School of Nursing (2004-2014) and was chair of the UCSF School of Nursing Department of Family Health Care Nursing (1993-1998).

Why this job? Why now?

UCSF is a very special place for me; it really launched my career. I was a fairly young student in the PhD program, and UCSF gave me my roots and my wings. I flew away to some pretty amazing places with superb educational preparation underneath me, which helped the institutions I led achieve a fair amount of success.

This also feels very much like a homecoming to me. I came to San Francisco in 1979 and stayed 20 years. My children were raised here and this was our home. My tour of the East Coast was fun, exciting and growth producing – but when I stepped out of the deanship at Duke, I came back to the Bay Area for a sabbatical year, and I didn’t leave. I have been teaching online for the last two years, and I took on some special projects, but I didn’t want to leave. San Francisco is home.

How will your time on the East Coast shape what you do here?

The jobs at private institutions [as dean of the Yale and Duke schools of nursing] were very different from what I’d experienced here as a department chair. I think – and others have told me – that what I learned in the private world might have real importance in the public world, particularly at this time.

Most notably, in the private model there are no funds flowing from the state. Private institutions talk about, “Every tub on its own bottom.” If you don’t find funding, you don’t have anything to spend. I had to create a business model that worked, which meant thinking about accomplishing the socially significant work of educating nurses as a business. The work of the dean included setting tuition rates – to be reviewed and approved by the Board of Trustees – and figuring out the financial equation that would enable us to build a new building or grow a new program or hire new faculty members. I needed to develop plans that would bring in new revenues without burdening our faculty and staff members.

One of the things we did at Duke was to develop continuing education programs designed to meet the needs of health care companies. For instance, we took a topical program – population health management – and engaged our content experts to develop nondegree-based programs that could be taken to the corporate client. We taught large groups of employees in areas that were strategically important to the company. We were still in the business of education, but not degree-based education. And our educational “intervention” enabled these companies to address learning gaps quickly.

At a place like UCSF, where we focus on degree-based education, there is a place for continuing education. Health professionals must engage in lifelong learning to support current practice with changing and expanding knowledge bases. We could consider continuing education as a secondary product of our educational work.

Of course, if we ask our faculty to engage in this new responsibility, they have the right to expect it’s not just an add-on. It’s an exchange for something else they were doing, or they should get a premium for doing extra work. But if we price these types of programs correctly, they can help us add human and financial resources – and opportunities – to our School.

As you begin the job, what are your most important priorities?

My top priority is facilitating a dialogue with the faculty that will result in a strategic direction, but even before that begins, we know that there are a few things we have to do.

We have a mandate for much greater involvement in the UCSF Health enterprise. I don’t know yet exactly how that will play out, but my other title – associate vice chancellor for nursing affairs at UCSF – calls for involvement in the health system. We want our educational programs to be relevant and useful to people delivering care, and we want to be involved in the development of knowledge and delivery of care. [Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer at UCSF Medical Center] Tina Mammone [MS ’06, PhD ’14] and I have been in touch, and we will be working on development of a mutually beneficial plan for greater cooperation and involvement. The School’s faculty members are committed to deeper engagement.

Another priority is further development of our DNP [Doctor of Nursing Practice degree] program. I was an early advocate for the development of the DNP programs, believing that they would advance the preparation of nurses whose careers were committed to clinical care. The DNP programs, which include a heavy focus on leadership and the translation of knowledge into practice, hold the promise to impact service delivery. In fewer than 10 years, the Duke DNP program became the top program in the country, exceeding all expectations. At UCSF, our DNP program ties in nicely with our mandate to work more closely with the health enterprise. Ideally, the program would bring our clinical colleagues into the educational program and our DNP faculty into the health system to support implementation of important translational projects.

Diversity remains a top priority. I want to lead an organization where all people feel included and are supported to make positive contributions. I don’t know all the forms that will take yet, but in other settings, I have developed leadership and pipeline programs that helped to advance the members of our larger community. Nurses can – and should – be a force for combating the divisiveness that dominates social discourse today.

Finally, I and many others believe that if we’re going to find innovative and successful solutions to today’s challenges in science and care delivery, we will need an interdisciplinary approach. Nursing’s voice needs to be at the table. In addition to looking toward partnerships with those with whom we have always worked closely, I would like us to move toward some new and strategic partnerships on campus, in the Bay Area and beyond. For example, UCSF’s recent commitment to neurological health presents new opportunities for partnership in care and in science. Our proximity to Silicon Valley sets up the possibility for partnerships with technology companies. Nurses are well positioned to create applications for use by persons managing acute or chronic illness episodes. And, of course, as managers of care, they understand the needs of providers as well. UCSF also brings its well-developed expertise in symptom management to such a partnership.

Coming in, what most excites you about the School and about UCSF more broadly?

We have a very strong tradition of leadership and scientific success and are seen as a “common good” across the globe. The world wants UCSF’s School of Nursing to continue to be a leader. As the dean, I understand my role to be a steward of that common good. At this point in my career, what could be more rewarding than pursuing those possibilities?