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IOWA CITY — After leading the $1.9 billion University of Iowa Health Care enterprise through a decade of historic prosperity that included world-renowned medical breakthroughs, soaring patient totals, record revenue, and expansion including a new children's hospital and biomedical research facility, Jean Robilliard on Friday announced he's stepping down.
At almost 73 years old, Robillard is eight years past traditional retirement age. But, he told The Gazette on Friday, he's not retiring. A pediatric nephrologist by training, Robillard said he intends to remain on faculty in the UI Stead Family Department of Pediatrics after his successor arrives.
And, while the university conducts a national search for his replacement, Robillard said he'll stay in his current role as vice president for medical affairs of UI Health Care — which comprises the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, UI Hospitals and Clinics, and UI Physicians.
Friday's announcement comes just months after Robillard added to his job description the duties of medical college dean — in hopes of fostering a 'stronger alignment of the organization's clinical and educational missions.' And it comes just weeks before the long-awaited opening of a new $360 million UI Stead Family Children's Hospital.
But Robillard — who came to the university as medical college dean in 2003, moved to vice president in 2007, and served as interim UI president last year — said the enterprise is always advancing and now seemed the right time for a change.
'There will always be other projects — there are many more we are thinking about,' he said. 'So you cannot wait for the last one or it will never happen.'
Robillard added, 'I think the institution is extremely well positioned to get a new leader.'
'I think when you want to recruit good leaders, you try to bring them to an institution that is doing fine — where there is progress and there is excitement and there is optimism about the future,' he said. 'And that's how I feel about this place.'
Plus, Robillard said, 'I will be 73.'
'Even if I have a lot of energy, it's tough to start projects that take four, five years to do,' he said.
Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter on Friday told The Gazette he's known about Robillard's plans to step down but tried to persuade him to stick around longer.
'I've asked him over and over again just to stay — we'd love to have him stay another five years,' Rastetter said. 'But he's at the point in his life where he wants to do this.'
Rastetter cited Robillard's numerous accomplishments while leading the enterprise, including his role in establishing the UI Health Alliance, a partnership among four Iowa health care organizations that comprises more than 3,000 providers and 18 hospitals in the state.
'I think Jean Robillard has been a terrific leader who has had a strategic vision of where UIHC can go to, expanded its reach, improved the quality, put the place on stable financial ground with record profits that he's reinvested in new facilities,' Rastetter said. 'And he's brought in great faculty and resources to raise the bar and make the place even better.'
Today, UI Hospitals and Clinics is nationally ranked in a variety of specialties, and it's the state's biggest medical enterprise — generating the most income and employing the most people. In December it will open a new $360 million Children's Hospital that rises 12 stories and includes 507,000 square feet of new space.
Earlier this month, The Gazette reported the UI Hospitals and Clinics just closed out its highest revenue year in history — with totals reaching $1.45 billion, or 3.5 percent above budget and nearly 11 percent above last year.
NOT WITHOUT CRITICS
But Robillard's time at the university hasn't been without controversy. As head of the search committee to replace former UI President Sally Mason, Robillard last year took heat for inviting the would-be selection — former IBM businessman Bruce Harreld — to campus during the recruitment process.
Media investigations revealed Robillard — along with other members of the search committee and the Board of Regents — met with Harreld more than once during the recruiting stage.
Rastetter eventually said he and Robillard heavily recruited Harreld, who was widely criticized for his lack of academic administrative experience. The selection prompted the UI Faculty Senate and UI Student Government to cast votes of no confidence in the Board of Regents and the American Association of University Professors to sanction the institution.
But Robillard stood by his role in the Harreld hire and in his belief that Harreld was and continues to be the right person for the job.
'I felt that we picked the best person to be president of the university,' Robillard said Friday. 'I believed it at that time. I still believe it. And time will show it's right. I don't care if people disagree with this. That's the way I felt. That's the way I still feel today.'
He said Harreld is instituting new ways of looking at higher education — and how to support higher education — that is 'quite exciting.' But he acknowledged the critics' concerns and said they're healthy for a vibrant academic campus.
'There will always be a small group of people who will object,' he said. 'But we need these people. Honestly, I respect these people. We need them. Because they keep your feet to the fire. And they have the right questions. I have no problem with that.'
Harreld in a statement Friday praised Robillard's ability to foster an environment that enabled individual and systemic success.
'UI Health Care has, quite simply, thrived under Jean's leadership,' Harreld said. 'He leaves a strong legacy that will have a lasting impact on the institution and on the health care landscape of this state for generations to come.'
Some at UIHC also have raised questions around staffing levels. Unionized nurses last week held a rally and reported nearly 60 percent of the members surveyed said their units were understaffed either frequently or every day.
But to skeptics wondering if Robillard was pushed out of his leadership post, Robillard said on the contrary.
'I was probably pulled in,' he said. 'The regents last year asked me to stay longer. The president, when he came, asked me to stay longer.'
But, Robillard said, this is simply the right time.
'I think the timing is the right time because the institution is doing well,' he said. 'And I think that's when you should leave. They should kick you out if things go bad but you should leave when things go well.'
'IOWA GROWS ON YOU'
A Montreal native, Robillard received his undergraduate and medical training from the University of Montreal. He trained in Canada and then at University of California-Los Angeles before getting his first taste of Iowa City in the 1970s. He joined the UI faculty in 1976, advanced to professor in 1982, and became vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics in 1987.
In 1996, Robillard went to the University of Michigan, where he was chair of pediatrics and physician-in-chief at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. He returned to UI in 2003, and Robillard — who has eight grandchildren, including several in Iowa City and Des Moines — said he doesn't plan to leave.
'Iowa grows on you,' he said. 'I did not know where Iowa was. But, I can tell you, we are not planning to leave the state. We are planning to stay here. We love this place.'
As a child, at age 7, Robillard contracted polio, which affected his physical mobility. But, Robillard said, he rarely gives it a second thought and doesn't perceive his personal medical history as having helped or hurt him in his career.
'For me it has been a normal portion of my life,' he said.
As a leader, Robillard said his style has always been focused outward.
'You have to value the people around,' he said. 'The minute you value the people around, you can achieve about anything as a team.'
Accomplishments under Robillard's leadership include:
Establishing an 'ultramodern' 256,000-square-foot Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building, enabling 'high-risk, high-reward science.' The building opened in 2014 and houses research programs like the new Iowa Neuroscience Institute;
Expanding the clinical enterprise, including in neighboring Coralville with the Iowa River Landing ambulatory care clinic and around the region through several UI QuickCare walk-in clinics;
Leading development of the new UI Stead Family Children's Hospital;
Creating the UI Health Alliance;
Charting record fundraising for the hospital and the college;
And investing $100 million in the college's research enterprise to recruit new faculty and support existing faculty.
Robillard said he doesn't think the university will struggle to find another leader to continue that progress.
'The place needs new leadership, exciting leaders,' he said. 'And I think that's' what they will find.'