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November 11, 2002

A deeper representation

By Eric Rangus

When William Branch joined the University Senate, he did so because he thought it might be an interesting way to learn about Emory.

“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 benefits reductions.

“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 very receptive.

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 humanist.”

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,” he said.

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 Harvard.

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 and career.

“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.”