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Not surprisingly, Kessler's dismissal stunned the UCSF community. The day the news got out, physician and medical school professor Bob Wachter, who blogs about university affairs, summed up the mood: "Today the great mecca of medical care and innovation that is UCSF all but ground to a halt."
The manner in which Kessler was let go also caught many of his colleagues by surprise. In academia, deposed executives are typically accorded genteel treatment, not uncommonly finding new jobs elsewhere while leaving behind little public hint of dissatisfaction. In Kessler's case, things were different. "The university applied every sort of humiliation technique you would normally associate with a corporate firing," says one faculty member, who, like several others who were asked to comment for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was really kind of shocking."
Kessler declined to discuss the events of the day of his firing on Dec. 13, citing confidentiality constraints. But others say it took place at a downtown law office during a marathon 15-hour session presided over by a professional mediator flown in from the East Coast. Bishop, flanked by several lawyers, represented the university. Kessler was accompanied by his wife, Paulette, and Keith Yamamoto, a prominent UCSF medical researcher. In 2003, Yamamoto, the medical school's executive vice dean, headed the search committee that recommended Kessler for the job.
Just what there may have been to "mediate" remains unclear, since none of the participants contacted by SF Weekly were willing to discuss what took place. Sources close to Kessler say he attended the session in hopes that the discord stemming from his many months of having expressed concern about the perceived problems with the school's finances might still somehow be resolved.
The university apparently felt otherwise. Shortly before midnight, one of its lawyers handed Kessler a letter from Bishop declaring that he was terminated, effective immediately. It was a Thursday; Kessler was ordered to clean out his administrative office at UCSF's Parnassus Heights campus by the weekend. As a further indignity, his friends say, the university canceled his parking privileges (they were later restored), despite his remaining on the faculty as a tenured professor.
Bishop's was one of two letters Kessler received that evening. The other was from UC president Robert Dynes, removing him from his dual role as vice chancellor for medical affairs at the San Francisco campus. Conspicuously absent from either letter, copies of which were obtained by SF Weekly, is any stated rationale for Kessler's dismissal.
The next day, Bishop announced the changing of the guard via campuswide e-mail without mentioning that Kessler had been fired. The chancellor said only that Kessler had "left office as Dean" and thanked him for his "energetic service" and "substantial achievements" on behalf of the university.
Had Kessler been so inclined, he still might have left quietly. But that wasn't in the cards, as evidenced by another campus e-mail communiqué half an hour after Bishop's — this one from Kessler.
"Shortly after arriving at UCSF as Dean, I discovered a series of financial irregularities that predated my appointment," he began. Kessler explained that he had tried without success for nearly three years to press his concerns about the school's finances with university officials, and that "yesterday, Chancellor Bishop terminated my appointment as Dean."
For an institution unaccustomed to public melodrama, it was as if a bomb had gone off.
Those closest to Kessler may have been the least surprised. "David made it clear that he wasn't interested in a financial deal to allow him to walk away if it meant he couldn't speak up about the threat he saw to the future of the medical school," Yamamoto says. "To do otherwise isn't in his nature."
Although Kessler hasn't accused anyone of criminal misconduct such as embezzlement, his allegations go to the heart of UCSF's ability to remain competitive among top-tier medical schools. As the only UC campus devoted exclusively to the health sciences, UCSF — with six locations around San Francisco and another in Fresno — occupies a unique and lofty place in the University of California system. Its four schools — medical, nursing, dental, and pharmacy — and graduate division are all highly regarded.
Among them, the medical school is clearly first among equals, and the locus of UCSF's resources and prestige. As one university staffer puts it, "When the medical school sneezes, the rest of the place gets a cold."
As the medical school's strategic nerve center, the dean's office plays a critical role. Money set aside for use at the dean's discretion allows the school to recruit prominent faculty, launch innovative research, and otherwise support educational programs. The tens of millions of dollars available each year may appear small compared to UCSF's total budget of $2.6 billion. But, as at other institutions, the dean's funds can make or break the school's ambitions.
In 2003, UCSF sought a replacement for then-Dean Haile Debas, who was retiring. With the 43-acre Mission Bay expansion taking shape, it seemed logical that the university would turn to someone of Kessler's stature. Having overseen a huge expansion of both research and clinical care facilities at Yale, he was eager for a new challenge. But the decision to come to San Francisco didn't come easily, friends and associates say.