Five years ago, Dr. Barbara Atkinson came out of retirement to serve as the founding dean of UNLV’s nascent School of Medicine. Instrumental in bringing a medical school to Las Vegas, Atkinson stepped back from day-to-day operations Sept. 1 as Dr. John Fildes took over duties as dean. Now Atkinson transitions to a new role as an adviser — still engaged in helping the search for her replacement and fundraising, but maybe with a bit more time to go bird-watching.
How are you adjusting to your new role as an adviser?
I think it's great. It's less responsibility, and more of the fun things I like to do like meeting with people, helping with some community projects, helping with philanthropy projects, and working on accreditation, which is not as much fun but definitely needs to happen. And we've been working on detailed planning for the medical education building, which is due to actually happen. So that's exciting.
How active will you stay in fundraising for the medical education building?
I'm sure there will be other people helping with that as well. It's not just for the building. It's for hiring faculty, especially in areas we currently don't have. And for scholarships. It's extraordinarily important for us to be able to have students pick whatever specialties they want to go into and not be encumbered by huge debt.
What characteristic does the next dean of the School of Medicine need to have?
It's good to have an ability to work with people. To basically lead people but encourage people to follow a leader and to work independently and get the job done. It's really working with people to get the mission accomplished.
What surprised you most about the job?
I absolutely intended to get the job done. I only realized a couple of years later, it was a surprise to most people that it actually happened. I assumed it was a given. I'm glad that I didn't know that people didn't think it was a given because I think that might have deterred me. (But) there were a lot of people at UNLV who expected it to happen. Don Snyder who was president when I was hired. Len Jessup and his team, when they came in, certainly expected it to happen. The city of Las Vegas and the chamber of commerce were incredibly important in making sure that it happened and to get funding through the Legislature that first time and get us off to a good start with our accreditation. There were a lot of people who worked to make sure it happened, but I think coming in I wasn't aware of how many people who weren't sure it was going to happen.
What’s going to be the biggest challenge for the school moving forward?
The biggest challenges are really maintaining a level of excellence over everything. We really have an excellent curriculum. We really need to build a level of research that is starting. We have about 10 million a year research funding right now. We need to grow that substantially to be able to have the economic benefit of having a School of Medicine. A lot of the economics of a medical school happen because of the research that happens. We need to grow the research effort.
Do people understand just how much of an economic impact the School of Medicine will have on Southern Nevada?
It was the reason that we were approved by the Board of Regents. The economic benefit was over $1.2 billion a year economic benefit within 15 years of starting just for the medical school alone. That's a lot of benefit, a lot of jobs. After 10 years, I think we will hit the $1.2 billion if we continue to grow the way we need to grow. That was looking at how many jobs are happening just from the building that would go up. Not only do we need a medical education building, but we have to have a building for our research efforts and we have to have a building for our clinical efforts at some point, and for the administrative piece. There are a lot of growth factors that are going to happen as we move along. Then there are all the businesses around the medical district that will add to the flavor of converting the medical district into an active, growing place where you can go and eat and see people and have a lot more services than are available now.
How much do you think about what your legacy with UNLV will be?
I don't think about that that much. For me, it's not just about my legacy. It's about what everybody's done. It really was a team that made it happen. It grew quickly to now over a thousand people. No, I don't think of it as my legacy. It's something special for the university to have.
With your own personal medical issues that left you hospitalized in 2017, and the sudden death of your daughter in June, how does that color your thinking about the School of Medicine?
It only goes to show how important it is to focus on the medical care here in Las Vegas. We have a lot of really good doctors, just not enough of them to take care of everybody.
In 10 years’ time, what do you think will be the impact of the School of Medicine on Southern Nevada?
We should have a lot of well-trained doctors and a lot more of them who are really paying attention to their community. The community has been very important as a basis for why we have our schools. We're training students who are going to stay in Nevada and practice here, and who really understand the community they come from and the community where they're going to practice. We're hoping that they'll also be able to impact the health care to more of a preventive maintenance kind of health care instead of just treating sick people. We ought to be able to do a better job of maintaining health and having people live lives as healthy as they can be.
What else will you get up to in semi-retirement?
I was retired once before about five years ago, and I had plenty of stuff to do. This time I'm hoping I won't have quite as much time, because that was a little too much time for me. But being able to work in the garden, more outdoors things, go birding. My husband and I used to bird for a long time, but we haven't done much birding here in Nevada because I haven't had much time. I love to cook and so I've already been able to do a little bit more of that. And just being able to spend more time with family and friends.