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David Perry: a rock of stability in a sea of change

The University’s School of Medicine is a $650 million-a-year enterprise with more than 3,300 employees, which makes it roughly a third of the University anyway you cut it.


There are countless things that go on day in and day out to keep it in business.

The real work that takes place in the medical school happens with the faculty and the students — out in the departments, the clinics and the classrooms.

But in order for them to have the resources they need to be able to do their jobs, budgets have to be prepared and followed. People have to be hired or promoted. Agreements with outside groups that sponsor research programs have to be developed. New buildings have to be built and old ones renovated.

None of these things have to do with the core mission of the institution. But without putting and keeping all of these systems and procedures and people in place, the core mission would fail.

Enter David Perry.

As executive associate dean for administration at the medical school the past 15 years, Perry has served with four different deans to make sure all this other stuff gets done, day in and day out.

His success in doing so has not escaped the notice of a small army of appreciative colleagues, including those who joined together to nominate him for a 2004 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

John Melvin Anderson, chair of the Department of Cell and Molecular Physiology, wrote in his nominating letter that Perry is a good listener with a keen mind who follows his analyses with clear and concise recommendations. Never before had he had the privilege of working with anyone of Perry’s “high intelligence, honesty, dedication and objectivity,” Anderson wrote.

Throughout his tenure, Perry has been credited with helping to develop new programs, securing financial resources and managing difficult personnel issues. He has also been instrumental in setting up a number of collaborative programs between the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health, including the jointly sponsored Department of Nutrition.

Through changes in leadership and a continuous period of phenomenal growth, Perry has been the one constant, faithful and loyal face of stability amid uninterrupted change.

Small town, big dreams

Perry, at the age of 62, now looks back on his life and career with a sense of gratitude and awe.

Perry’s father worked 42 years in a General Motors automobile parts plant in Anderson, Ind., and among his greatest aspirations was seeing his two sons and daughter go to college and reach for something better.

Perry, who was the oldest, became the first to realize that dream when he went to Indiana University in Bloomington in the fall of 1960.

As captain of his high school marching band, Perry hoped to continue his trombone playing for the college band, but the band couldn’t use him. They already had enough trombone players. It was tuba players they needed.

No problem, Perry told the band director. He could learn to play tuba. And so that’s what he did.

His sophomore year was highlighted by the arrival of a girl from Anderson who had been a year behind him in high school.

They struck up a relationship at the start of the year.

Before the start of his junior year they married, and by the end of it he was a father.

To make ends meet, Perry worked 30 to 35 hours a week in two part-time jobs, in addition to taking a full load of classes for which he sustained a four-point average. Looking back, he marvels that he was able to do it.

“It just goes to show that, if you are focused and have some goals in life, you can knuckle down and get things done.”

He majored in political science with a minor in history, and the distant goal back in those days was to live a tranquil, contented life in academia.

Because there was a draft in the early Sixties, Perry decided join advanced ROTC his junior year — a move that would commission him as an officer in the Army Reserves upon graduation and call for him to complete an active-duty obligation of two years.

After graduating with honors in 1964, Perry immediately entered graduate school and completed his master’s degree in political science by 1966.

Perry began his pre-doctoral work, intending to speed through it in much the same way, but he ran into an unexpected obstacle.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting one more semester in a seminar of some kind,” Perry said. “I had reached the outer limit of my ability to tolerate being in classes again.”

And that looming two-year military obligation gave him the perfect excuse for taking a needed break.

What he didn’t know, when he went on active duty in January of 1966, was that the hiatus would entail a one-year tour in the Republic of Vietnam.

When he arrived to Vietnam in summer of 1966 he was one of 200,000 American troops there. By the time he left the following summer, the number of troops exceeded 500,000 and was still climbing.

He served as an Army intelligence officer, briefing senior staff in headquarters in Saigon on analysis of battle information. On one occasion, he gave a report to Gen. William Westmoreland, who was then the commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam and “Time” magazine’s “Man of the Year.”

“For a person who was only 23 years old, that was a very formative period in my life,” Perry said. “It was quite an experience and one that stayed with me the rest of my life. I figured if I could brief Gen. Westmoreland and survive it there wasn’t much else I could run into trouble doing.”

Coming of age

After finishing his remaining six months of active duty service at Fort Sheridan, Ill., Perry was ready to take on any challenge, even if it meant giving up the one of finishing his doctorate so he could become a college professor.

Somehow or other, that dream had lost its allure. Some of it might have had to do with his coming of age in Vietnam. Some of it might have had to do with his memories as a graduate student of having to read undergraduate essay papers on American foreign policy.

“The thought of spending my whole life doing that was more than I could bear,” Perry said.

Thinking of what else he might do, he signed up at Indiana University’s business school for job interviews with Ford Motor Company and other corporations. And it was here that he stumbled upon a recruiter from what was then called the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget), which was within the executive office of the president.

As an old political science major, the prospect of going to work at an executive office of the president of the United States piqued his interest.

He ended up going to Washington in spring of 1968 to be interviewed for not one but three different positions — and getting offered all three.

He ended up working as a legislative analyst, and later as a budget examiner, in the Human Resources division.

It was while working as a budget examiner that Perry got to know a vice chairman of the Indiana University medical school who was in the first cohort of academics who had been brought to Washington under the Robert Wood Johnson Public Policy Fellows Program to get a better understanding of the public policy process.

The man’s name was David Challoner, who in fall of 1974 called Perry to tell him that he had just accepted an appointment as dean of the medical school at Saint Louis University.

Challoner was 39 at the time, Perry only 32 and not yet at that set point in his life where he wanted to spend the rest of his career working for the federal government.

Perry accepted the offer and would end up spending the next 14 years at Saint Louis University, seven years longer than Challoner.

‘Bureaucratic midwife’

Perry had applied for the job at Carolina once before in the early 1980s, but ended up as the runner-up candidate. When he was contacted about the opening for the same job 1989, he initially refused to consider it until the dean of the medical school, Stuart Bondurant, and Eric Munson, CEO of the hospital, turned up the heat.

Come down and take a second look, they told him. And when they offered him the job a short time later, he found himself unable to say no. “What happened to me is what happens to so many who come to Carolina — you take a look and you get the bug real quick.”

He arrived in May of 1989 and plans to stay until he retires.

“I have to say I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in my career, from beginning to end, to have the opportunity to work with some really stellar people. I’ve learned from them. I’ve been able to contribute, I hope, to their success, but I’ve learned a lot from them starting with my days with the Office of Management and Budget. I was mentored by really good people who knew their stuff and who instilled in me a commitment to high quality work, thoughtful analysis and getting work done on time.”

When he went to Saint Louis, he discovered that many of the tricks of the trade in Washington had parallel applications in the academic milieu as well. Maybe the most important one was what Perry calls the “small p” politics that is part of the fabric of life in a large, complicated organization with diffused authority and power.

Because of the range of experience he has had throughout his career, Perry has been called upon to get involved with matters outside his former sphere of responsibilities.

It is through these assignments that he has acted primarily as a bridge builder, forging links between the medical school and the schools of dentistry, nursing and public health, and with departments within the College of Arts and Sciences such as physics, biology, chemistry and math.

There are always new challenges, and that for Perry is what continues to make the job so much fun.

But the deep satisfaction comes from the quality of the people, the worthiness of the mission and what Perry called the culture of Carolina. There is an ease with which collaboration can take place across disciplinary boundaries here, Perry said, and the medical school’s location on campus is only a part of the reason why.

“There seems to be a conscious desire on the part of leadership across the campus to collaborate and to be supportive of one another and to share resources and to recognize that the path to success is not me having a bigger pie and you having a smaller pie, but having the whole pie get bigger so that we can all benefit from it.”

In 15 years of service, Perry was instrumental in the establishment of seven new departments (emergency medicine, biomedical engineering, nutrition, orthopaedics, genetics, otolaryngology, and physical medicine and rehabilitation) and seven new centers (the Cystic Fibrosis Center, Gene Therapy Center, Carolina Cardiovascular Biology Center, Neurodevelopmental Disorders Research Center, Center for Infectious Diseases, Carolina Center for Genome Sciences and Center for Maternal and Infant Health).

In addition to helping ensure smooth transitions of leadership across four deans of the school, Perry has helped to recruit at least one new chair for each of the school’s 27 departments, initiated career development training for their administrators and recruited directors for most of the school’s 16 established centers.

It is this connection that Perry feels with the whole campus that makes winning a Massey so meaningful to him, he said.

“Needless to say when the chancellor called me to tell me I was one of the awardees it was one of the greatest days of my life. It was an affirmation for me of what I’ve been trying to do here. I couldn’t have been happier.”

In his Massey citation, co-workers described him as “accessible, responsive, thoughtful, diplomatic, knowledgeable, sensitive and firm,” and “one of the best things we have going for us in the School of Medicine.”

But winning a Massey for Perry is something that was both exhilarating and different.

“To be really happy and ultimately successful in a job like this, your personality has to be one in which you don’t necessarily crave the limelight yourself,” Perry said. “This is the kind of job that allows you to go home at the end of the day and sleep well at night happy and content that you did something that contributed to somebody else’s ability to be successful.”

Most days, the satisfaction comes in helping in some small way for somebody else to get that grant, or publish that paper, or teach that class, or care for that patient in the clinic.

He sees himself, at times, as a sort of bureaucratic midwife, clearing away some obstacles that get in the way of faculty members being able to do their best work.

“I’ve felt very well rewarded, not just in having a good job and a comfortable living, but more importantly, in feeling I was making a contribution to something in society that was bigger and better than myself.”


Originally published by University Gazette: Nov. 17, 2004

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