Editorial: Restoring trust in EVMS

·3 min read

Public confidence is a tenuous thing these days for significant institutions. It’s a precious commodity, one needed to do big things, and should be carefully weighed and measured as consequential decisions are made.

That is precisely what Eastern Virginia Medical School has failed to do since the fall, and officials must focus their energy on rebuilding community trust with the same vigor they applied to tearing it down

The collapse of sound judgment, even common sense, by the EVMS governing board and the school’s leadership, has been stunning to observe. The attacks on Sentara Healthcare — orchestrated and financed by EVMS to the tune of a half million dollars (at a time when it was begging for support) — are not just non-sensical, but reprehensible.

Has any American medical school (anywhere) ever sought to advance its presumed interests in such a manner, which include vitriolic personal attacks, misrepresentations of fact and repeated acts of dishonesty and bad faith?

Sentara happens to be EVMS’s largest donor. Did it ever occur to anyone at EVMS that this approach might be something less than sensible?

The precipitating event, a study undertaken last year by Manatt Health Strategies, a respected and credible firm, was meant to lay the basis for a sustainable financial plan for EVMS, one that would provide EVMS with a more secure, viable future.

There are two broadly agreed-upon facts: One, that the public justification for EVMS endures — the school is valuable and important to the health care of the citizens of this region; and, two, the financial status quo at EVMS is not sustainable.

Ergo, it’s time to fix things.

The challenge rests, in large part, on EVMS’s status as a stand-alone, independent entity. Few medical schools in America are so structured. Very few. The vastly more common arrangement involves an affiliation with a larger public institution, such as a major university.

That long has been the arrangement at the University of Virginia, with its extensive and vital medical center. The 1968 merger of the Medical College of Virginia with Richmond Professional Institute, which created Virginia Commonwealth University, was driven in part by a desire to insure MCV’s financial future.

This is the reality. This is indisputable. Medical students are the most expensive students of all to teach and a medical school will not last long without a solid financial footing.

Yet, when the Manatt study came out in October — including its recommendation for EVMS to merge with state-supported Old Dominion University, a sound and sensible proposal that EVMS knew was coming well before it became public — the response by the medical school was to collectively blow its top and began flailing away in all directions.

EVMS said that Sentara just needed to fork over the cash and shut up. Pairing up with ODU, it said, was unacceptable.

Then a greater, more immediate problem arose over the tactics employed by EVMS to argue its case — or, to be more accurate, to not argue its case.

EVMS appeared less interested in a fact-based discussion of alternatives than it did in destroying Sentara’s reputation by means of a rather crude campaign of vilification and denegation.

EVMS refers to this effort even now as “a robust community engagement program.”

That’s cute and wrong and deceitful. This “engagement” involved the sort of populist, “us-versus-them” folderol that could never hope to result in anything but resentment and injured community relationships.

No question, it got that part done. EVMS has gone far to blow up every bridge of goodwill available in Hampton Roads. It’s standing alone, to be sure, and more alone than ever.

“We have not sought an adversarial relationship with any neighboring institution,” an EVMS spokesman said recently, in what may constitute a near heroic statement of self-delusion and cluelessness.

The chair of the EVMS Board of Visitors will have a new occupant by July 1, Dr. Marcus L. Martin — a step in the right direction.

Now comes the more difficult work of repairing relationships and that may require other personnel redeployments. Regaining public trust will take much longer.

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