Dean Ebert: True to the Harvard Myth


When Dr. Robert H. Ebert was 50 years old and at the peak of a distinguished career in academic medicine and hospital administration in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1964, he left the midwest and came east, to Harvard.

"I came partly, I suppose, because it was Harvard," Ebert explained yesterday. "But the major reason that I came was that while I felt that there was a lot of inertia at Harvard, and that it would never change very rapidly, I felt that it wasn't afraid of change--much less so than other institutions."

Ebert became dean of the Medical School one year after his arrival, and succeeded with programs at Harvard where he had been frustrated at Case Western Reserve University. Ebert, who will resign the deanship in July 1977, fulfills a certain Harvard myth: Harvard as an academic mecca.

What Ebert calls his greatest accomplishment at Harvard is the establishment in 1969 of the Harvard Community Health Plan, a pre-paid hospital care service administered by the University. He volunteered the same type of project in Cleveland and was rejected. Ebert refers proudly now to the list of similar plans the Harvard program has since inspired.

Ebert explains the power of his position by turning, again, to the prestige of the Medical School, a "bellwether" of an institution whose innovations are watched by every other school in the nation.

The increased admission of black students and women over the ten years of his deanship, Ebert says, was significant largely because it had an impact on other medical schools. The Harvard Med School class is now about 19 per cent black.

Ebert admits that his administration has been concerned more with issues of public health and the societal role of the school than with academic matters. This is because Ebert views himself, from the context of a detailed historical analysis of the role of the Med School, as the pilot of a school in the midst of a prickly "transition period."

After a 60 year period of entrenchment within university systems and development of extensive research programs, medical schools are now on the verge of what Ebert calls the "Social Era." Now, under the manipulation of federal legislation and federal control of the purse-strings, "medical schools, whether public or private, must be considered to be public institutions," Ebert argues.

Ebert does not always agree with the direction in which legislators and advocates of socialized medicine have attempted to push schools. He says that it is not clear that redistribution of doctors to depressed areas can be effected through changes in the structure of medical schools. Where he has been successful, he says, is in anticipating this pressure before other medical school officials have.

Thus, Ebert has supported legislation that would force federally supported schools to send their M.D. graduates to doctor-poor areas. And he is now at the focus of the federal effort to determine the nature of medicine as vice chairman of President Ford's Biomedical Research Panel.

Ebert scheduled his resignation for July 1977 to leave him three years before his retirement in 1979 in a non-administrative capacity. He says he will continue his research of the history of medical education and his inquiry into the "Social Era" that is upon us.

"If I could find a place to sit," Ebert says wryly, "I would like to come across the river to Cambridge." But Ebert admits that upon his resignation he will be able to do pretty much whatever he wants, which includes fulfilling at least one more Harvard myth: resting quietly on his laurels in Harvard Yard and, maybe, teaching a freshman seminar