Tuesday, December 18, 2007

An Ugly Divorce: Where Will David Kessler Land?

This was the email that went out to University of California San Francisco medical school staff on December 14 from Dean David Kessler:

Shortly after arriving at UCSF as Dean, I discovered a series of financial irregularities that predated my appointment. I reported these issues to appropriate university officials at the time, and have endeavored to work with the university ever since to solve these problems. The university characterized me as a whistleblower. During the summer, Chancellor Bishop requested my resignation. I continued to try to solve these problems. Yesterday, Chancellor Bishop terminated my appointment as Dean, effective immediately. Over the course of the past four years, it has been my pleasure and honor to work with the outstanding faculty, staff, students and donors of this remarkable school and institution. I want to thank all of you for the opportunity to foster and nurture outstanding programs on behalf of UCSF.

David A. Kessler, M.D.
Professor of
Pediatrics, and Epidemiology and Biostatistics

The news came as somewhat of a shock to the academic community and Washington policy observers who followed Kessler when he was FDA commissioner under the Bush I and Clinton Administrations from 1990 to 1997. UCSF disputes Kessler’s account of the school’s finances.

It’s not the first time Kessler has stirred up controversy or been the target of an investigation into his handling of financial issues. Prior to his voluntary resignation as FDA commissioner in 1996, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) accused Kessler of overbilling the government for expenses of just under a $1,000. Kessler eventually wrote a check to FDA for the full amount.

After stepping down from FDA, Kessler subsequently took a position as Dean of Yale Medical School in 1997. After a six-year run at Yale, where it, in September 2003, Kessler was appointed Dean of the UCSF School of Medicine.

Kessler is not the first former FDA commissioner to have been involved in a dispute over the use of institutional funds. Former commissioner Donald Kennedy was forced to resign as president of Stanford University after 12 years (1980-1992) due to questions over the indirect use of university research funds.

Kessler says he will remain at UCSF as a professor but it’s hard to imagine that could last very long considering the nature of Kessler’s firing as dean. The RPM Report noted earlier this year that Kessler had reemerged from his quiet life as an academic and into the public spotlight as a very vocal observer in the wake of criticisms against FDA.

Kessler participated in a roundtable discussion of former FDA commissioners organized by the George Washington University School of Public Health in February. Kessler showed up a few months later at a May 7 House Oversight & Government Reform hearing on food safety.

At the time, we thought Kessler was angling for an appointment in a possible Democratic administration in 2008—maybe as head of NIH. But this latest spat with UCSF almost assuredly quashes any possibility of that happening. A new administration won’t be looking for a nomination fight early on in what looks to be another closely divided election.

But Kessler could still end up in Washington, nonetheless. His knowledge and skill in the area of health policy and regulation would be attractive to any number of think tanks inside the beltway. The Engelberg Center for Healthcare Reform was recently set up by former FDA commissioner and CMS administrator Mark McClellan at the Brookings Institute. Kessler also has ties to Ruth Katz, dean of the GW School of Public Health, and would be quite a catch for an institution taking an aggressive strategy in building up the school’s faculty.

However, it’s unlikely Kessler will find a position as prominent as dean of the UCSF medical school. And it’s all but certain that Kessler will be left out of the running for a coveted appointment if the Democrats take the White House.

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