June 12, 2023

Medical School honors ‘quadruple threat’ in celebration of Joseph C. Kolars, M.D., MACP

As he steps down from his role as senior associate dean for education and global initiatives, the longtime educator also reflects on his career in a Q&A session

Joseph C. Kolars, M.D., MACP

During two stints at the University of Michigan Medical School — including 2009-23 as senior associate dean for education and global initiatives — Joseph C. Kolars, M.D., MACP, has meant a lot to learners, colleagues, faculty and staff in the medical education community — at Michigan, across the country, and around the world.

Many of them gathered June 12 for the community event, “Celebrating the Legacy of Dr. Joseph Kolars.” They shared stories and had many laughs, but also told heartfelt stories of a mentor, friend, fellow faculty member and leader who is stepping down from his dean role. The event was livestreamed; a recording is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__m_-XCB9k8

If there is such a thing as a quadruple threat, it is Joe,” said Medical School Dean Marschall S. Runge, M.D., Ph.D. “He’s a physician, a scholar, an educator and he has led global health efforts here, and will continue to do so. That is quite a legacy.”

One of Kolars’ longtime colleagues at Michigan, Rajesh S. Mangrulkar, M.D., led a panel of two former medical students, who are now doctors involved in education, as well as others from his career. They touched on his quiet, yet powerful, leadership and what it has meant to them.

He is a force in education; he understands how to lead change by building movements,” said Mangrulkar, who served as associate dean for medical student education for a decade.He is now director of the U-M Center for Interprofessional Education and faculty associate in the Center for Academic Innovation.He is among the kindest souls I have ever met. He has the uncanny ability to be clear and caring at a time when we most need it. He always lets others shine, and he empowers them to have courage and take risks.”

The panelists echoed Mangrulkar’s thoughts.

“I rarely take a step without asking Joe and getting his input,” said Emily Abdoler, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine in the U-M Medical School and co-director of the Michigan Medicine Academy of Medical Educators, a community of practice for faculty to grow as teachers in the service of better learning. “He has the uncanny ability to ask just the right question that gets at the heart of what you are dealing with.”

Abdoler’s UMMS classmate, Nauzley Abedini, M.D., MSc., is an assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at University of Washington Medicine and co-lead of the Global and Cross-Cultural Palliative Care Initiative. She credited Kolars with guiding UMMS through a difficult review of international service learning.

“Joe is a master of really getting to know the person in front of him and reflecting back what that person’s values are,” Abedini said, “He is not afraid to step into vulnerable spaces with you. It is one of his greatest strengths.”

Shoba Subramanian, Ph.D., principal manager for University Partnerships at Amazon, Inc., recalled a time when she was at the U-M during which she conducted a large study of expectations vs. experiences of Ph.D. students and postdocs. She found herself with a lot of data and many ways she could go with the results. She consulted Kolars.

“He took a tremendous amount of time, starting with the big picture and then going slide-by-slide, getting into the nitty-gritty of the data,” she said. “From that moment, I was hooked; I wanted to work with him.”

Professor of Internal Medicine Brent C. Williams, M.D., MPH, founder and director of the Global Health and Disparities (GHD) Path of Excellence, talked of his longtime colleague’s ability to bring others along and guide them to making decisions. This was especially true in ensuring that GHD was the very first Path of Excellence established as part of the new medical student curriculum.

“I have been a student of Joe for 30 years,” Williams said. “His ego is never in the room.”

Kolars told the crowd assembled in the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Auditorium in the A. Alfred Taubman Biomedical Science Research Building that HE almost was not back in the room, at least for a second go-around. He recalled conversations with then-Medical School Dean James O. Woolliscroft, M.D., about the possibility of Kolars returning to Ann Arbor.

“I would say there was less than a 5 percent chance, but (Jim) lured me back and I have been so lucky to be here,” Kolars said. “I have had the good fortune of being surrounded by fantastic people — learning that sense of community, values and connectedness. It motivates me to keep going.”

Executive Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Debra F. Weinstein, M.D., clarified that Kolars is not going anywhere. He is director of the U-M Center for Global Health Equity and a professor of internal medicine and learning health sciences. She added that a fundraising campaign is underway to establish a medical education professorship to honor him.

“Thank you, Joe,” Weinstein concluded. “We are stronger today because of you.”

Below is a Q&A with Kolars as he reflects on a distinguished career in medical education:

What are 3 things you are most proud of during your tenure as Senior Associate Dean?

I’m most proud of the team and the movement that has come together around accountable education. Rather than an overreliance on compliance or legacy around the way education is usually conducted, there has been a culture shift toward making sure that education is, in fact, linked to better patient care, better health, and better science. Great education programs such as ours ultimately should be measured by how we’re moving the dial on these parameters. I’m particularly pleased with the orientation across our education mission toward innovation and continuous improvement to make better learning happen. Most importantly, making sure people are prepared to be better clinicians, scientists, and educators because of our programming. Our educational programs have become more prestigious and competitive as a result.

How has medical education changed overall during that time — both for the better and also in ways that might concern you?

There has been an evolution in thinking as to what the ultimate purpose of education is. Thankfully, instead of focusing just on making people smarter, we’re more mindful of what it is that we want people to actually do with new knowledge. In the past, there was an overreliance on memorization and less appreciation for the fact that learning is a lifelong process by which new knowledge is built, refined, and put to use. Today, most of us carry all of the information that we need in our pockets (i.e., on our smart phones). Instead of valuing people for being great at memorization, we need to develop people who ask great questions, at the limits of their knowledge, who are motivated, and who are prepared to seek out the answers. That drive to learn more, rather than just mastering a current body of knowledge, is critical. I’m grateful for the attention that the scholarship of education is receiving. How people teach and learn is a legitimate academic space deserving of further research and exploration. Meanwhile, there always will be threats and forces that could detract from education. The tension for teachers who also must perform in the clinical or research space, where their efforts are more easily measured and rewarded, can leave many feeling that they just don’t have the time or support to do education. The tyranny of compliance, while necessary, can detract from creativity. Our learning environments have become much more stressful and risk adverse. So-called mistakes or a failure to meet one’s own expectations for success can have devastating consequences within our learning communities. The attention on civility and on reducing the power differentials between teachers and learners is welcome. But we still have a long way to go. 

How would you compare medical education now to when you were a medical student/resident?

There is less regimentation or a one-size-fits-all mentality. Learners have more agency, as well as more responsibility, for their own education. When I was a junior learner, there was quite a bit of ‘hanging out’ in educational spaces (such as hospitals and clinics), in hopes that osmosis would advance my knowledge and skills. Now, we’re much more intentional with learning goals and assessments. Performance used to be quite defined with more grades and reliance on scores that often just tested knowledge. Now we’re much more attuned to more holistic attributes — more difficult to measure than knowledge, but at least as important. The concept of wellness was missing early on and is finally receiving much-needed attention. But somehow, there has been an unhealthy drift in expectations among learners. If they don’t see themselves at the very top of their cohorts or peers, or at least in the top tier, they can perceive themselves as failures (or that the system is failing them). This is adding too much stress to what are already stressful processes.

The pandemic greatly affected the education mission here at Michigan. How do you feel we responded, and also what has changed forever (if it has) because of the pandemic?

I was incredibly impressed with how our learners stepped up to help patients, colleagues, Michigan Medicine, and the community. Their creativity was truly inspiring and some of the solutions created continue to benefit us. I was always taught to never waste a crisis, and how computers and information technology has been leveraged for better care and better learning will always stay with us. I wish we had more dialogue as the pandemic was unfolding about the role of learners. Removing our students from the clinical environment had its proponents, but it also sent inadvertent messages as to their role on care teams, which was unfortunate. I also think we could have done better with our master’s and doctoral students who felt more disconnected and isolated as a result of the pandemic.

Why is it important that Michigan continues to excel as a global medical school?

Great universities such as ours should be wrestling with the major problems of the day, many of which are global right now — climate change, infections, or access to healthcare are just a few examples. As a public institution, we are particularly committed to the common good and not just further advantaging the elite. Some of the most powerful learning comes from having to reinterpret ourselves, and what we think to be true, into other settings. This is where some of the greatest questions will arise that will lead to new insights and breakthroughs. We owe it to all learners to better prepare for them to be relevant to the global context and prepare them to change the world.