Rick L. Stephens
College of Medicine
It’s a beautiful thing when a big idea becomes reality. Jeanene and I have seen that happen on only a few occasions in our life, but each one is an exciting memory.
In 2012, Dr. Phyllis Wise, former Chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign (UIUC), shared her big idea with us and gave us a front row seat as it came to life during the next six years. Over a glass of wine on our screened porch one relaxing evening, Dr. Wise unfolded her vision of a new medical school that would teach engineering and medicine in the same curriculum. We loved the idea and jumped on board immediately.
Phyllis knew that success in this venture would require a committed partnership between UIUC, Carle Health (one of the largest hospital systems in Illinois), and the community. All three “legs of the stool” would need to be solidly beneath the idea to pull it off. Our role was to help build support in the community, and so we went to work.
Jeanene and I had met physicians before who had described the improved health care they could provide if they had a particular kind of tool, mechanism, test, piece of equipment, or access to data related to their work. But they needed an engineer to take an interest and create the innovation. Likewise, we had met engineers who described something they had invented that they believed would help a physician provide better care to patients, but they couldn’t get busy physicians to take the time to help develop it. Doctors are trained to be doctors and engineers are trained to be engineers, but combining their passion and talent is elusive. But what if . . . a new type of medical school taught students to be engineers and doctors at the same time?
Out of this idea was born the Carle Illinois College of Medicine (COM). It didn’t come without much pain, agony, defeats, and victories over the coming years, as is the case with most big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs). It was the first new college at UIUC in over 50 years. The State of Illinois didn’t have the funds to pay for this, so we would have to rely on private funds. There was pushback from the U of I system (with three campuses) because it already had a big medical school in Chicago, albeit one with the same curriculum that’s been used for decades to train physicians. The city of Chicago wanted the idea to blossom there so the accompanying growth and energy would benefit their community. And, like one can always expect when a new idea is posed, the naysayers came out of the woodwork in droves. Change is difficult.
It would have been so easy to give up as every hurdle developed. But Dr. Wise, Dr. Jim Leonard (CEO of Carle Health), and community leaders stayed on course. With amazing support and energy from the leaders of the UIUC colleges of Engineering and Bioscience and the Carle Health Board, each obstacle was overcome and the new college was approved by the University Board of Trustees.
Several years of very hard work followed, developing a unique curriculum and progress toward accreditation, and in 2018, the first class of 32 students arrived. Most had already completed graduate degrees and been successful in careers before joining this class of special individuals. It was an extremely brilliant, talented, and compassionate group dedicated to finding ways of improving health care for everyone at lower cost.
Today, the Carle Illinois COM receives over 3000 applications to become one of 48 students accepted in this unique program that teaches students to be physicians and engineers in the same curriculum. It is a world-renowned COM whose curriculum is being copied elsewhere, as the way physicians are trained is changing. Jeanene and I are grateful for the chance Dr. Wise gave us to become early adopters of her vision, to help get our community on board, and to be part of this exciting venture!