By SUSAN JONES
For Dean Patricia Kroboth, leading the School of Pharmacy for the past 20 years has been a calling.
“The way my professional life has interfaced with my personal life has shown me the reason that I’m on this Earth,” an emotional Kroboth said. “It has been an extraordinary experience. And I feel like this was my calling. And I am looking forward to having what is arguably the best job in the world and that is to be a professor.”
Nationally this year about 67 percent of the students applying for residencies match for residencies. Kroboth said Pitt’s pharmacy students got matched at a rate of 94 percent. “Our masters and Ph.D. students are highly sought after by the pharmaceutical industry and government — like the FDA. In addition, many place in extremely prestigious academic institutions for postdocs.”
Kroboth announced in September 2021 that she will step down as dean at the end of June, then after taking some leave will return as a part-time professor. The search committee for her replacement — led by Steven Reis, director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute — has met with community members to set up job parameters and has been interviewing finalists. No word yet on when a new dean will be named, but the goal was to have someone before Kroboth leaves.
Kroboth sat down with the University Times last month to discuss her time at Pitt and the future of the School of Pharmacy. (Her responses have been edited for conciseness and clarity.)
Why did you decide now is the time to step down?
It was an extremely difficult decision — both to do it and the timing of it. I absolutely love my job. When I made the decision, and even now, I have the energy, the passion for the school to keep going. I looked at a number of factors, as I think most people do, and one of the factors was that I had been dean for 20 years, which in the life of the school is a very long time.
And I also looked at the situation of the school, and everything about the school was in absolutely terrific shape. Our research programs were doing better than they ever had been. Our educational programs continue to win awards. We continue to win awards for innovation and excellence. Our practice programs were doing exceptionally well both in institutions, meaning hospitals, and in the community. And we were about to move into a new building within a few weeks of when I made the announcement.
You put that all together and you say … it’s time to leave when things are good. That decision, as people will tell you, was emotional for me. And it still is, however, I’ve had about eight or nine months to get used to the idea. I’m still going to be around; I’m not retiring. And that’s an important part of the process for me that I’m dissociating myself from the dean’s position, not from the school and the University.
What will you be teaching when you step into the faculty?
Well, it’s interesting, because I’ve had some faculty ask if I wanted to join them. I’m going to keep the course that I teach now for the emerging professional, and I’m wondering whether I want to expand it into something bigger for other students as well. I have been invited by a faculty member to join a group for journal clubs and to kind of get back to my research roots. I think the first part of the time that I step away will be an opportunity for me to explore these ideas, and I also wanted to do some writing. I I think there are some very important things that I could write that would have meaning. They would be important for the school and be helpful to the school as well.
What has changed the most in the school over the past 20 years?
Number one is our reputation. We were a great school before. We were a well-kept secret, I think, both on campus and in the nation, and one of the things that we did was make a point of doing more. We took up the scholarship of education. We had been innovative for a very long time and, in general, we did not share that in terms of the scholarship of education.
Actually it was our accreditation body that cited Pitt was in the position to be a national leader in pharmacy education. When I put that slide up during a discussion session and people suddenly realized the opportunity and what it would take to do that. We started a process where we would find out, in a systematic way, what kind of awards students and faculty and staff were winning and sharing those.
The other was building a research program. Although we had made it to the top 10 in the 2000s, everybody gets better, right? You can’t just say, ‘OK, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing.’ You have to continue to grow the talent and to expand the directions of research that you’re pursuing and the impact that it’s having. We have about five times the dollar amount of NIH funding that we had — not only NIH but of the research funding.
We’ve tremendously expanded the number of graduate students in our program. We have about fourfold the number of graduate students and if you look at the entire student body, we have about one and a half times the number of students that we had then, so our programs have expanded.
And then what I don’t want to leave out is that we moved. Our facilities have tremendously improved, and we have now what I think is really state of the art classrooms and research laboratories. In 2002 when I was appointed Interim dean, and even in 2004, our facilities were extremely poor. They were much more limited in square footage, and in very, very poor shape. Thanks to the University, we were able to build Salk Pavilion and renovate Salk Hall.
What do you count as your greatest achievement as dean?
What I’m most proud of is the culture in the school. Before I became dean, we adopted as our mission statement the words excellence, innovation and leadership. We also included a whole series of values that are really important for us — being committed to integrity guiding our daily life, to fostering passion, commitment and diligence, collaboration and teamwork, creativity and personal growth and respect for the individual. It may sound kind of silly, but when you look at the words in there, they fit with the excellence, innovation and leadership. It’s a culture where people know that you’re going to support innovation.
And it’s perpetuated through the students. They just walked away with five national awards, which is enormous. There’s only one other school that even came close nationally to winning the number of awards that we won.
Our faculty continue to innovate, and they support each other. Part of the culture is this mutually supportive interaction amongst faculty across departments, and with students. People say that when they’re here and they’re interacting, they can feel it. That’s something that’s really important. We do all of our strategic planning together. Not everybody attends all the sessions, but people, for the most part, they get it and they participate because they know what their role is in building the reputation of the school. Regardless of what role they have, it’s important, it’s contributing something really important that is advancing, moving us forward.
Having such a welcoming and supportive culture is one of the things that I’m most proud of, and something that, I firmly believe, has to be sustained for the future success of the school..
What changes in the industry have you had to confront and teach students about?
Several. Pharmacy has changed enormously, and it continues to change. To the outsider, when they think of pharmacy, they may think only of the community pharmacist. And for many people, the interaction is quite limited because they don’t necessarily need a lot of support in terms of how they’re taking their medication.
For very, very many people who have chronic diseases or are on very expensive medications, they need much more specialized support and interactions — in hospitals, as well as in the community. What you’re seeing over time — that we’ve been ahead of the curve on — is teaching our students and practitioners already in practice, how to be direct patient care providers.
The second thing has been the data science. Students need to understand and be able to access data, which is a huge driver of how people make decisions.
Another driver is in research. The explosions in research that have occurred over the 20 years are enormous. Back in 2002-2004, the Genome Project was underway. We knew that at some point, we were going to be able to use a person’s genetic information to guide drug choice and dosage — we’re there now.
Another innovation is in drug delivery techniques that we’ve had to teach students about. It’s some of our faculty members who develop very targeted drug delivery techniques, and the sophistication of that has advanced greatly in 20 years.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the school going forward? Or greatest opportunity?
I think we have some great educational programs and the opportunity to grow. Online programming is a big one. That’s a way to have impact. I think the opportunity for micro-credentials is also a really big opportunity. A lot of people may not want to go and commit for a master’s, whether it’s online or not, but they might be interested in what we would consider these days to be stackable micro-credentials.
I think the opportunity is there for us to be a leader in research. It would have to be a serious investment in resources in order to assure that we stay in the top 10. While we may have a new building, and we have tremendous faculty, out of the faculty that we have, we’re not going to likely be able to generate more dollars, because our faculty are exceptionally productive.
There has to be in commitment to investing in new faculty to be able to assure that we are going to even maintain our position. Many other states have much greater — and this is no surprise — support from the state, and private institutions have a different agenda. The real question is how do we grow? If you want to maintain top 10 status, you have to be really good at everything you do. And that means the research, which they count by dollars, unfortunately, not by necessarily the impact it’s having on people’s lives.
And you have to be really good at educating students because if word gets out that your program, when it comes up for accreditation, got some partial compliance or was basically non-compliant with some of the standards or that your students were having trouble passing boards, you’re just not going to be in the top 10.
What do you think Pitt should be looking for in a new dean?
Number one, someone that has a commitment to listening. And I would say that means to the faculty and staff, too. The way we got here was me not being the only one to have great ideas because a lot of people have great ideas.
Understanding what the forces are that will shape us and ability to work well with the administration of the school and the administration of the university.
And I would say a demonstrated commitment to working in a place that has a good culture of shared governance, which is part of that whole listening kind of concept. I do believe the culture is so important that if somebody didn’t appreciate that and did things that destroyed it, it would be unhelpful to progress. It’s got to be somebody that’s going to gain the trust of the faculty.
The real question is national reputation, I think national reputation is very important. And I say that because the qualifications of the dean are partly what shapes the reputation of the school.
And an ability to work with alums — that’s been part of our success. The ability to support scholarships and faculty through generous gifts from alums has been very important to our success.
Anything else you want to share about your time or your future?
I also look forward to having more time with my family. And I say that because being a dean has you on call. There are a lot of events, evenings and weekends. Just to give you an example, I realized that my niece is getting married a year from this one on graduation day next year. Oh, yeah, that would have been a terrible dilemma for me. And so I don’t have to worry about that. I’m going to actually be able to choose to spend anniversaries and weddings, family events without thinking that I’m shirking responsibility, because clearly the dean has to be at graduation.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.