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September 14, 2000

Faculty and alumni support choice of Braun to head Pitt’s dental school

Thomas W. Braun, the new dean of Pitt's School of Dental Medicine, says he plans to work with dental faculty in taking what he calls "a very analytical look at where the school is now, and re-engineering the school as a nationally recognized, dominant force in dental education.

"I plan to examine our curriculum, our admission standards, and our physical plant and logistics," said Braun, 52, who had been interim dean since last September, when Jon Suzuki announced he was stepping down. As executive dean, Braun had been administering the school on a day-to-day basis since spring 1999.

"I'm planning to develop several task forces through which faculty will participate and provide information to me about available resources, strengths and weaknesses, and what improvements are optimal and achievable," Braun said.

"I believe that we have remarkable potential as a school. Our faculty and students are very willing and anxious to contribute, and I think that is a great strength."

In the past year, the school has become pre-eminent for genetics research, especially as related to the craniofacial complex, Braun said. "We also are establishing a tissue engineering component in collaboration with other schools, and I anticipate the development of a geriatric dentistry center with emphasis on bone biology research."

Also under development is an informatics program and collaborations with similar programs in the School of Medicine and UPMC Health System, Braun said. He also expects to continue expanding the school's efforts in oral cancer and dental public health.

The new dean said his school's most glaring weaknesses are its shortage of space and its antiquated pre-clinical laboratory, where first- and second-year students begin practicing clinical skills on mannequins. "It's a very outdated facility, which translates into our school being unattractive to potential applicants," Braun said.

Upgrading pre-clinical lab space — which the dean estimates will cost $2 million — is the school's No. 1 priority in the University's capital campaign, he said. "We're also looking to develop more scholarships for our students. And we'd love to get an endowed chair, which the school does not have at this time.

"The funding is, of course, the big question," Braun said. "In addition to raising funds through the capital campaign, I have had a genuine commitment from Dr. Levine that he would commit to providing the resources necessary to get the school where it needs to be. I'm planning also to solicit gifts from dental alumni, whom I have found to be extraordinarily supportive and willing to participate during the last year."

Academically, Braun said, Pitt's dental school has potential to meet the growing need for dental educators — "not all of them Ph.D.s," he said, "but essentially good, clinically trained dentists who can be strong researchers.

"Currently, there are about 300 open faculty positions in dental schools around the country. I would like to see our school address that need. We would be looking at maybe eight or 10 people out of a typical graduating class of 80 or 90 students."

So far, rapid changes in third-party reimbursement through managed care have not hurt dentistry as much as they have medicine, Braun said. But that may change as dentistry is increasingly recognized as a part, rather than an offshoot, of medicine.

Historically, dentists (like surgeons) were looked down upon by physicians as being technicians at best and butchers at worst — witness the barbers who doubled as sawbones and tooth-pullers. But in the 19th century, medical schools began training surgeons even as dental schools were founded to teach dentistry as a distinct profession.

"While things like heart diseases and ear, nose and throat diseases all became part of the medical curriculum, dentistry was sort of left on its own," Braun said. "Well, I think it's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that division.

"More and more, oral health will be viewed as a part of total health," Braun predicted. "We're already seeing that with dentists being trained to diagnose oral cancers. There's a lot of indication that we might be able to rapidly diagnose systemic diseases through swabs taken from the mouth."

The mouth is an accessible orifice where treatment and research easily can be done, Braun noted. "Very conceivably, we will be able to engineer gum and bone tissue to help us remain relatively young in our faces, jaws and teeth," he said.

In announcing Braun's appointment, Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, said: "Dr. Braun was the outstanding candidate for this position. He is known throughout the national dental community as a superb clinician, teacher, administrator and an outstanding leader in advancing research and practice in dental medicine. During his interim deanship, he has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to necessary change, the ability to develop a consensus that would allow change to be undertaken effectively and, most importantly, a true vision for the future of dental education, research and practice."

Braun's candidacy for dean brought an outpouring of support from colleagues at dental schools such as Harvard, Penn and Columbia, as well as endorsements from the local dental community, including faculty and alumni, according to Levine.

Dealing with the rapid evolution of dental research, teaching and practice "will require profundity of thinking and decisive action to ensure that our school continues to ascend to national prominence," Levine continued. "I have no question that Dr. Braun is committed to doing what will be best for the School of Dental Medicine. He will be steady at the helm as he navigates the school into the uncharted waters of health care in the 21st century, and I believe that students and faculty will find Dr. Braun to be rigorous, fair and visionary."

Supporters of Braun's predecessor, Jon Suzuki, said Suzuki made the school leaner and more efficient during his 10-year deanship. But Suzuki's faculty critics, who campaigned to oust him, contended that summary dismissals, transfers and intimidation marked Suzuki's leadership and led to poor morale and losses of faculty and research funding.

One of those critics, associate professor John Baker, called Braun "a very good appointment" who has healed divisions and managed the school well.

"He listens to all sides of an issue, then makes his decision," said Baker, a dental school representative to Pitt's Faculty Assembly. "I think if Dr. Levine gets behind Tom in terms of providing necessary resources, this will work out very well.

"Tom is a graduate of the school, he knows the school's people and its problems. He knows the dental community," Baker said. "The alumni were behind him very strongly. Also, Tom has a strong background as a clinical dental scholar, and that's important in a dean. You need someone who understands academics and the importance of research, and you can't question Tom's credentials in those areas."

A Pittsburgh native, Braun earned four degrees from Pitt: a B.S. in biology in 1969, a D.M.D. (summa cum laude) and an M.S. in pharmacology in 1973, and a Ph.D. in anatomy in 1977.

Braun completed his residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery at what is now UPMC Presbyterian. He became an instructor in the dental school's anatomy department in 1975. He was named associate professor and chairperson of the oral and maxillofacial surgery department in 1990 and associate dean for hospital affairs in 1991. He became a full professor in 1993 and senior associate dean in 1996.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 33 Issue 2

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