UK lands high-profile cancer center chief

To land its latest prized recruit, the University of Kentucky launched an intense six-month courtship that included a weekend stay at Gainesway Farm and the promise to invest more than $80 million.

All this wasn't for a McDonald's All-American basketball player or for UK's much-ballyhooed, newly hired coach, John Calipari.

University officials pulled out all the stops to reel in an even rarer commodity: a big-name surgeon/researcher to head its Markey Cancer Center.

Tuesday, the university will introduce as the center's new director Dr. B. Mark Evers, whom UK lured away from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston Cancer Center.

The process of wooing a nationally known expert to a university's faculty is a high-stakes, pressure-packed effort that rivals, and in some cases surpasses, college basketball coaching searches.

"Recruiting the star-quality junior and senior faculty is not cheap," UK Provost Kumble R. Subbaswamy said. "They're not going to give up their professional achievements to come here and do less than what their potential is. So we've got to have the start-up packages, the facilities and all that it takes for them to succeed here and the ability to recruit students and pursue grants."

The hiring of Evers is the latest example of UK's red-carpet efforts to help lock up top-flight talent.

Evers specializes in gastrointestinal oncological surgery. He is the medical equivalent of a five-tool player in baseball who excels at all key facets of his profession, medical officials said.

"He's very highly regarded as a clinician. And he's a guy who can do research on a molecular level," said Dr. Jay A. Perman, dean of UK's College of Medicine. "He's just a perfect combination."

He brings $5.5 million worth of coveted National Institutes of Health grants, and his team of faculty researchers is working with an additional $8.5 million in NIH funding, said Dr. Michael Karpf, UK's executive vice president for health affairs.

To attract someone of that caliber, UK made more than $80 million worth of commitments for research space, technology and salaries for Evers, who could bring from Texas as many as seven Ph.D.-level researchers as well as some technicians.

UK officials pledged to Evers that the university would spend between $35 million and $40 million to develop 30,000 square feet of new research space over the next decade and another $35 million for clinical technology improvements to the medical center over seven to 10 years.

"That's a head-turner," Subbaswamy said of the total package. "And that's really what got the attention of the people we've brought in here (who say), 'OK, Kentucky is serious about this. They're not just paying this lip service.'"

Anticipating that such expensive promises, including a $650,000 base salary for Evers, might raise some eyebrows during rocky economic times, Subbaswamy was quick to point out that any university has to be willing to spend money to give researchers the space and tools to serve their mission. In Evers' case, that's trying to cure cancer.

"You get what you pay for in this business," he said.

Looking for the right fit

The Markey Cancer Center has been led by interim director Dr. Robert Means since November 2006.

A couple of job candidates for the directorship came close to being hired, but the vote among the search committee members was split each time, leaving Perman as a tiebreaker.

"It often was left to me in a very lonely way to say, 'Yeah, let's go ahead with him or let's not,'" Perman said. "I'll tell you, I took a few lashes for walking away from a candidate or two."

What UK was looking for was someone who brought both scientific and clinical credibility "who can spearhead taking findings from the laboratory right to the bedside," Karpf said.

They also wanted someone who could easily connect with the community, lead fund-raising efforts and be an ambassador for the university — much like what UK officials sought in a men's basketball coach.

"There aren't a whole lot of people like that," Karpf said.

So he and Perman worked the phones last summer to solicit suggestions and advice from 30 medical leaders across the country.

Evers' name quickly rose to the top.

Wowing the families

The problem, however, was that Evers wasn't looking to move from Galveston, where he has worked for 21 years and has amassed nearly as many titles at the cancer center there as he has had major published works.

Nevertheless, Perman and Karpf called an initially reluctant Evers late last summer and intrigued him enough to talk him into visiting campus in November.

Instead of paying for a hotel room for Evers, Markey Cancer Center board member Antony Beck hosted Evers and his family at Gainesway Farm's guesthouse.

That Saturday, Nov. 8, while Evers made the rounds through the campus and cancer center, UK officials took his son, Ben, to the Wildcats' football game against the University of Georgia.

Ben turned 13 that day. Karpf's wife had a birthday cake waiting for him at Commonwealth Stadium.

"We did everything we possibly could to make it clear that we wanted him," Karpf said. "We put the full-court press."

But UK officials said they weren't certain they had snared him until the next month, when they brought Evers back with his team of researchers — whom Evers considers members of his extended family.

"Having them buy in was hugely important," Evers said in a phone interview. "They felt the excitement as well. Just going there and seeing a lot of new buildings going up and a lot of plans for the future, they were impressed."

Once word got out that Evers was considering leaving Galveston, Perman said he worried that another university might swoop in and intercept him or that Texas officials, perhaps even the governor, might intervene.

Evers said Gov. Rick Perry never called, but other schools did.

"I gave them some passing consideration," said Evers, who declined to name the other suitors.

In the end, the opportunity to help build UK's reputation and return to a familiar region of the country won out. Evers, a Tennessee native who completed his residency at the University of Louisville, said UK gave an offer he couldn't refuse.

They finalized the details last month.

Scouting for talent

Evers is the most recent high-caliber hire UK has made as it continues its trek toward the goal of being a Top 20 research institution.

Over the last two years, the university has landed a host of high-profile faculty across all areas, including Michael Speaks, the well-known dean of the College of Design; Paul Bertsch, a plant and soil science professor who is president of the Soil Science Society of America; and David A. Brennen, a law professor and deputy director of the Association of American Law Schools, who was named UK's next dean of the College of Law last week.

UK leaders have been scouting established all-stars in their fields and promising prospects.

In his office, UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. keeps a directory of newly hired staff in which he highlighted dozens of the professors whom UK stole away from Top 20 public and private institutions or who received their degrees from those highly ranked schools.

"What happens in this environment is that if you are still on the rise, you can tell by the applicant pool you get for openings," Todd said.

Several top candidates whom UK has snared cited the business plan Todd wrote that laid out the strategy for cracking the top 20.

"That was a real clear statement of the university stating the common goals and having an agenda," said Speaks, who left the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles to take the design college deanship last year.

Todd said one of his pitches to job candidates goes like this: They can take a job at Harvard University or Johns Hopkins University, but those institutions will always have a premium reputation.

"Whereas, if you come here, you'll have a chance to look back in 10 years and say, 'I helped build that.'"

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