When William Branch joined the University Senate, he did so
because he thought it might be an interesting way to learn about
“It sounded like it might be fun,” said Branch, Carter
Smith Senior Professor of Medicine and current Senate president.
“It was an opportunity to work with people in the broad University
as opposed the more narrow medical part.”
Little did Branch know what lay ahead. The 2001–02 academic
year, when Branch was president-elect of the Senate, was not always
fun, as the Senate found itself in the middle of one of the most
contentious debates the Emory campus had seen in years: that over
“The reaction to that was much stronger than I think one might
have anticipated,” said Branch, who by virtue of his Senate
presidency also chairs the Faculty Council. He has a slow, almost
stately way of speaking. A native of Alabama, Branch’s more
than 25 years on the faculty at Harvard did nothing to eliminate
his Southern accent.
But, by and large, Branch has been encouraged by the dialogue between
the faculty and administration that arose from last year’s
benefits issues. Changes in employee benefits were made, but people
had their say and influenced what the changes were.
Branch’s goal for this year’s Senate is to amplify the
faculty voice in University governance through representation on
the Board of Trustees (BOT), a plan to which the board has been
Branch said he realizes a case could be made that the BOT should
be detached from the University and that, if faculty sat on the
board, they could use such a position to push their own agendas.
But he rejects this notion.
“A more realistic viewpoint,” Branch said, “is
that faculty are not only stakeholders but also have a great deal
of inside knowledge of what’s really going on at the University
and what really are the most important issues.”
That perspective makes faculty input crucial. Branch, who hopes
to design a system in which all of Emory’s schools would have
representation, said he doesn’t really have a timetable; if
it takes a couple years to develop, he wouldn’t complain.
“It would strengthen the entire governance system,”
Branch said. “The people who are elected to [Senate] positions
may also be members of trustee committees. They will have a much
larger voice in the University, making the whole process more meaningful.
“If there are issues that are going to be critically important,
where people have very strong feelings, I think we should face them
openly and honestly,” Branch continued. “I think we
have to have an effective voice in dealing with them. I don’t
foresee such issues at the moment, but I didn’t foresee them
last year, either.”
Branch’s original motivation for joining the Senate—as
a way to be involved and possibly contribute to the institution’s
well being—is not out of character. When he got into academic
medicine in the early 1970s, the trend was toward research, but
Branch was interested in doing something to benefit patients more
directly. The term he uses to describe his attitude is “medical
He became a driving force behind one of the country’s first
general internal medicine departments. Based at Harvard’s
Brigham and Women’s Hospital, it combined teaching, patient
care and research under one entity. Branch also served as founding
director of Brigham’s residency program.
“One of the things I’ve wanted to do most is to take
talented young people and help them develop their potential as leaders,”
Several factors played into Branch’s move to Emory seven years
ago. For one, he wanted to move back to the Southeast, closer to
family. Also, he felt he had “outgrown” his place at
Branch said residents should be receiving training from mentors
about 10 years ahead of them. When he came South, Branch was 25
years older than most of the residents he left behind.
At Emory, Branch has turned his attention to mentoring faculty,
which has been a prime role of his position. Grady’s involvement
in patient care is another factor that drew him.
“There are thousands of very poor people at Grady who need
care,” Branch said, and he has worked very hard to improve
the quality of that care. Whereas, prior to his arrival, Branch
said Emory docs at Grady may have been a bit detached from their
patients. That is not the case now; faculty now see each patient
every day, he said.
Branch is division chief of general medicine, one notch below chair,
and more than 100 faculty in the School of Medicine fall under his
guidance. He spends about two-thirds of his time at Grady and the
rest on the main campus. Working closely with his division faculty
is a high priority. For instance, Branch makes a point to meet with
each faculty member twice a year to discuss his or her work, progress
“I would have to say a division chief is the best job—because
you can still practice medicine, do research, teach, and be a leader
at a level at which things actually happen,” Branch said.
“It’s the last place you can do something without being
a pure administrator.
“Although some department chairs would argue with that,”
he added with a laugh.
Branch’s current research continues along his humanist lines.
Not only does he study how faculty develop relationships with patients,
but he also works to perceive things from the patient’s perspective.
One of his recent projects is talking with patients about end-of-life
issues and spirituality—how people approach what might be
their last days.
“You get to know people on an entirely different level,”
Branch said. “A much deeper level.”