Douglas Lloyd

As a rookie faculty member at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, Deborah A. Freund was determined to do all she could to improve health care in the United States. One of her first research awards was a multimillion-dollar grant that funded interdisciplinary research to develop a prepaid competitive primary health care program for the elderly in rural Georgia. Her passion for the task made her impervious to the risks she was taking. With a Ph.D. degree in economics, she was expected to focus in that area and publish findings in academic economic journals to receive tenure. “Doing that would have only provided one view of what was wrong with the health care system,” says Freund, now in her sixth year as vice chancellor and provost at SU. “Economics provided insight into the effects of reimbursements on hospitals and physicians, but other important issues—such as quality and access to care—needed to be considered. If I really wanted to understand the issue, I had to go to psychologists, anthropologists, and physicians to help me.” By incorporating these expert voices into her early writings, Freund soon became known as the country’s foremost researcher on Medicaid.


Steve Sartori
Vice Chancellor Deborah A. Freund delivers her State of the University address to faculty last March.

Freund blazed her own trail by developing and employing unconventional research methods. In the process, she risked her chances at tenure because she undertook such a large, comprehensive project for which she was still collecting data and hadn’t published anything by the time of her third-year review. She also encountered difficulty getting her articles published because of their interdisciplinary perspective. “You can’t send the articles to the journals you would have, had you been doing a single disciplinary study,” she says. “I had to learn where to send my work and hope that my disciplinary journals would catch on, which eventually they did.” In fact, not only did she receive tenure, her exceptional research and teaching record led her to become a full professor within eight years. “One of the reasons I am convinced I am here today is because of my early interdisciplinary experiences,” says Freund, who also holds an appointment as Distinguished Professor of Public Administration at the Maxwell School and is an adjunct professor of economics and orthopedics at SUNY Upstate Medical University. “They were a great way to learn what different disciplines are about, what makes them tick, and what the incentive structure is."

Today, as the primary decision-maker on all academic policy matters for the University’s 11 schools and colleges, Freund draws from her experience to build a culture that encourages collaboration among disciplines. She will overturn tenure decisions by departments—an act she does not take lightly—if they do not value the interdisciplinary work of a junior professor under review. “As a leader, you have to be willing to do that so faculty at any rank feel empowered to take risks and recognize how important interdisciplinary research is,” she says. Her efforts have already begun to pay off. Since she came to SU in 1999, sponsored research has grown from $41 million to $69.5 million. “Interdisciplinary work is becoming the norm rather than the exception,” she says. “We need a culture on campus that produces strong grant applications and teaches that as a matter of course. We also need students at all levels participating in research and benefiting in the classroom from discoveries at the intersection of disciplines.”

Making Her Mark quote
One of Freund’s biggest contributions to Syracuse University has been the creation of the Academic Plan, a goal-oriented blueprint for building on the University’s strengths and making improvements to enhance SU’s standing as a leading research institution. Chancellor Nancy Cantor says that Freund’s vision and the University’s Academic Plan were two of the reasons she came to SU. “Debbie has great academic values and aspirations, and the Academic Plan translates those into practical projects for SU,” Cantor says. “She is very well-known and connected nationally and internationally, both for her own scholarship in health economics and policy and her expertise as an academic leader. We are so fortunate to have her as a colleague and leader at Syracuse, and I’m personally looking forward to working with her on Academic Plan initiatives.”

A major component of the plan focuses on fostering interdisciplinary research in areas that represent the University’s greatest strengths, or SPIRES (Strategic Partnerships for Excellence In Research and Educational Success). Initially, the plan identified four areas for development—information management and technology, environmental quality, collaborative design, and citizenship and governance—all of which emanated from a series of focus groups, campuswide conversations, online bulletin boards, and “town meetings” Freund held. But, as the Academic Plan has taken hold, other interdisciplinary programs have emerged in such key areas as counterterrorism, information assurance, non-governmental organizations, and disability studies.

Another priority of Freund’s Academic Plan is to increase diversity in all its forms. “When I got my first faculty position at UNC, I was an affirmative-action hire,” she says. “I was the second or third woman in a school of 150 faculty, and I was the first tenure-track woman on the faculty in the department of 37 that I joined.” For Freund, that experience confirmed that it is the responsibility of higher education to provide educational opportunities to individuals from underrepresented groups. Under her guidance, the University has invested more resources in recruiting and retaining faculty from diverse backgrounds. Since 1999, the percentage of faculty from underrepresented ethnic groups has risen from approximately 15 percent to 17.6 percent, and the percentage of full-time female faculty members has increased from about 31 to nearly 34 percent. By comparison, the most recent national average (fall 1998) of minority full-time faculty is 14.9 percent, and the national men-to-women faculty ratio in 2002-03 was 62.8 percent to 37.2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the American Association of University Professors, respectively. “Today’s universities and businesses are populated by people who are direct descendants of immigrants who came through Ellis Island,” Freund says. “America wouldn’t be what it is today if these people didn’t have access to education. It’s up to us to continue that tradition and extend it to Natives, persons of color, and all students for the sake of generations to come.”

Steve Sartori
Vice Chancellor Freund talks with a family during Lunch on the Turf, a gathering for new students and their families that is held after Convocation.

Building from Experience
While the Academic Plan responds to SU’s academic needs and aspirations, it also reflects Freund’s view of higher education and its role in the world. As a world-renowned expert on health care, Freund has a vast knowledge of the health fields, government policymaking, and economics. And as a professor and academic administrator, she understands education’s impact on society and the importance of sparking student curiosity and providing small class sizes and individual attention.

Her own academic career demonstrates how she evolved as a scholar and administrator committed to tackling issues through a cross-functional approach. As an undergraduate in the sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, she was discouraged by the “non-cooperative” environment of labs in large chemistry and physics classes. “I retreated to major in classics, which had very small classes,” she says. However, concerned that she lacked the flare for translating Greek and Latin that would allow her to excel, she found herself drawn to health care. “Health care was the helping discipline,” she says. “I was good with people and I cared about it as a mission.”

During summers in high school and college, she gained practical experience in health care administration by handling communications and paying claims for BlueCross BlueShield. As a result of this experience and at the urging of her internship mentors, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in health care administration at the University of Michigan. After her first year there, Freund spent the summer interning with a prominent health administrator. “I shadowed the New York State commissioner of social services, who also was the director of the Medicaid program,” she says. “That’s where my interest in Medicaid and policymaking developed.” After completing the master’s program, Freund shifted her focus to policymaking and foundation work, serving briefly as a program assistant at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she learned the art of grant writing. She also decided to pursue a doctorate in economics at Michigan, combining her passion for health care with an interest in economics.

With Ph.D. in hand, Freund accepted an offer from the School of Public Health at UNC, where she soon became an international leader in the field of health economics. “Debbie was one of the first to examine Medicaid’s state-by-state program structure to learn how to make the system better,” says Charles Phelps, University of Rochester provost and a health economist. “She literally wrote the book on Medicaid, and I have relied on it quite extensively in my teaching of health economics and in textbooks I’ve written.”

During this period, she also excelled in her role as teacher and mentor, supervising more than 30 doctoral students on their dissertations. Paul Jellinek, a former director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and now a private health care consultant, was Freund’s first doctoral advisee. She helped him earn a doctoral degree in just one year. “Debbie kept me focused on the practicality of getting things done in real time,” Jellinek recalls. “She encouraged me to think big, but she also kept me from going off the deep end.”

Steve Sartori
Cantor and Fruend
Chancellor Nancy Cantor (left) and Vice Chancellor Deborah A. Freund confer during a retreat at the Minnowbrook Adirondack Conference Center in August.

Freund arrived at Indiana University in Bloomington (IU) in 1988 to continue exploring health economics. She pioneered the field of pharmacoeconomics, which evolved from her work developing the Australian Guidelines, a side-by-side comparison of how competition between drug companies affects patients’ quality of life. Since then, such countries as Canada, Portugal, and the Netherlands have adopted versions
of the guidelines for their health plans; the tripletier system for reimbursement of drugs in the United States also emanates from this work.

In 1990, two years after becoming a department chair in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU, Freund secured a $5 million grant to study total knee replacements. She hoped to identify who received the procedure, what factors doctors considered in recommending it, and why some areas and populations received the knee replacements more often than others did. To better inform her economic analysis, Freund learned how to do a joint replacement and studied the clinical aspects by watching the procedure in the operating room. She pulled together a diverse team of researchers and physicians, who were initially reluctant to take on the project. “I certainly entered into this project with some hesitation because there’s the concern that with such a large, diverse group, nothing will get accomplished,” says project member Dr. James Wright, the Robert B. Salter Chair in Surgical Research and associate surgeon-in-chief at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “Debbie was the driving force in making sure that people did work together, and she set the tone for the group with her enthusiasm and cooperative spirit. The result was a highly productive and intellectually stimulating experience.” The team ended up writing almost 100 articles together, and its seminal work is still called upon today. “We really made a difference,” Freund says. “I think all of us would say it was a life-changing experience. We came together as a team and taught each other along the way.”


Leading by Example
In her role as a department chair and later associate dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU, Freund inspired faculty members to improve graduate education together. When she was promoted to vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of faculties in 1994, she worked to enrich undergraduate education by emphasizing the importance of strong teaching, balanced with cutting-edge research. “The trustees and the taxpayers of the state were afraid the research had gone so far that the undergraduates weren’t getting the time of day from faculty,” she says. NCAA President Myles Brand, the president of Indiana University during Freund’s tenure as vice chancellor, recalls how she tackled the issue head-on. “To gain the faculty’s interest, she focused not only on teaching well, but also on the scholarship of teaching,” Brand says. “Soon she began meeting with leading faculty across campus so they could begin thinking in an intellectual way about how best to teach in their fields. It caught on like wildfire.” As a result of the initiatives IU put in place to reinvigorate undergraduate education, it received TIAA-CREF’s 2003 Theodore M. Hesburgh Award, which recognizes faculty development programs that ultimately enhance undergraduate education.

At the same time Freund was strengthening undergraduate education at IU, then-Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw was implementing his ideas for a student-centered research university at Syracuse. Looking for a place to make the best use of her talents, Freund saw Syracuse as just the ticket. “I wanted to go to a place that would value my abilities,” she says. “I got the opportunity to come to Syracuse, and come home to New York State.”

quote2The feeling was mutual, says Sandra N. Hurd G’75, interim dean of the Whitman School of Management, who served as chair of the provost search committee. “The committee was immediately struck with how well Debbie articulated what a student-centered research university meant to her,” Hurd says. “Her commitment to academic values and student learning became crystal clear in her first interview, as did her dedication to diversity, her ability to make things happen, and her personal interest and investment in faculty, staff, and student success.” In addition to her goal of improving all these things to make SU even more student-centered, Freund accepted the position with a self-imposed mandate to enhance Syracuse in categories critical in the evaluation of research universities. This includes such areas as sponsored research and the quality of graduate programs, and maintaining a balance between teaching and research in the allocation of faculty rewards and resources. Since Freund put the Academic Plan in place, all of those indicators have improved steadily, and many markedly. “The University has been well served by Debbie’s presence,” Shaw says. “She has collegially worked with academic leaders to develop a national model for an academic plan that will serve Syracuse University well for the decades ahead.

One of Freund’s major challenges now is to create a cohesive identity and spirit of collaboration for Syracuse that pulls together faculty and students from across campus around common goals. Through the Academic Plan, she has helped institute such University-wide initiatives as shared reading programs for first-year students, the University Lectures, and interdisciplinary research involving faculty and students.

While Freund has identified and accomplished tasks critical to the University’s long-term academic success, she is the first to point out that she was just building on a desire that was already here. “What’s been accomplished at SU over the past five years has been accomplished by a resounding ‘we,’” she says. “Everyone was thirsting for excellence. The Academic Plan was a chosen expression that gave everyone permission to pursue excellence and move in their own ways. I’m proud of the enhancement of our collaborative spirit, which has brought newinterdisciplinary curricula and research to the world.”

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