Call him Joe

Dr. Joe Robertson

Dr. Joe Robertson selected as 2018 winner of Charles Preuss Distinguished Alumnus Award

May 10, 2018

Story by Todd Murphy, photo by David Wakeling

Editor's note: OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D. R '82, M.B.A., retired last October after almost 40 years of service, following a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. He continues to serve as president, without salary, through July. The OHSU Board of Directors selected Danny Jacobs, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., to succeed Dr. Robertson following a national search. Dr. Jacobs is currently the executive vice president, provost and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

There's plenty Dr. Joe Robertson could boast about – if he were the sort of man who boasted – as he looks back on his remarkable OHSU rise, from ophthalmology resident to the highest level of leadership at Oregon's academic health center. The 12 years of his presidency have been particularly eventful.

There's the transformation of Portland's South Waterfront – with hundreds of millions of dollars in new and under-construction buildings for students, researchers and patients. 

There's the successful realization of the Knight Cancer Challenge, which resulted in $1.2 billion raised for research that may someday change how the world understands and treats cancer.

And there's the myriad other ways OHSU has grown, including adding 1,000 faculty members and $100 million more in annual research awards since Dr. Robertson became president.

But ask him about the victories of the past dozen years, and he's as likely to talk about clinical and educational partnerships in Klamath Falls and Coos Bay. Or how medical residents do rotations in more than two dozen rural communities throughout Oregon. Or OHSU's collaboration with Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria that's helped to bring more than 15 new doctors to the North Coast city.

His presidency is first and foremost about collaboration, Dr. Robertson said. Sometimes that means partnerships with Intel or advanced microscope maker FEI or Nike founder Phil Knight. But it also means less publicized partnerships across Oregon to remind small towns and rural Oregonians that OHSU belongs to them, too.

That's important to Dr. Robertson, who grew up in the rolling hills of rural southern Indiana. "I wanted OHSU to be as relevant in Burns, Jordan Valley or Enterprise as it is in Portland. And I want those citizens to feel that it's their OHSU. And that OHSU is actively working to make their lives better."

The collaborations and work throughout Oregon became part of what Dr. Robertson calls the "96,000-square-milecampus." Those collaborations also fit with Dr. Robertson's larger vision and the vision of the OHSU strategic plan adopted the year after he became president in 2006. That plan envisioned OHSU growing and succeeding by working with a range of partners – communities, nonprofits, private companies and others.

And there was no better salesman for those ideas, or for OHSU as a whole, than Joe Robertson, said Keith Thomson, the former Intel executive who chaired the OHSU Board of Directors when Dr. Robertson became president.

"He would talk with legislative leaders and medical people, find out what their needs were," Thomson said, remarking on Dr. Robertson's trips throughout Oregon. "He has a natural feel for how to deal with major donors, like Phil Knight, and with the power brokers in Salem. He's just a very competent, caring individual who meshed well with people."

At OHSU, Dr. Robertson has been meshing with people for along time. After completing his residency in 1982, he joined the ophthalmology faculty after a brief stint in private practice, becoming chair of ophthalmology and director of the Casey Eye Institute in 1997, then dean of the School of Medicine in 2003.

He said he often misses his time as a faculty member and chair when he worked with young medical residents and fellows.

"One of the great benefits of being surrounded by aspiring, bright students is that it's a great antidote for cynicism," Dr. Robertson said. "I've especially noticed this as I've gotten older. In any career, there's a tendency for cynicism to creep into your thought processes, but seeing the talent, commitment and enthusiasm of these students is a great antidote for that. You become excited about the future and know we will be in great hands."

As president, Dr. Robertson waded into the complexity of reforming the nation's health care system. OHSU adopted eight essential principles for health care reform in 2008. Dr. Robertson also served on the Oregon Health Policy board, the policy-making and oversight body for the Oregon Health Authority and for Oregon's health care reforms, from the board's creation in 2009 until last year. He was also a founding member of the board for Health Share of Oregon, the Portland metro area's largest coordinated care organization.

Whatever his focus, Dr. Robertson remained his passionate but affable self, say those who know him. When describing surprises about the job, for example, Dr. Robertson said he was struck by how much talking he had to do as university president. "Just a lot of talking and talking," he said, laughing. "I'm a retina surgeon, and I'm an introvert. But as I did it more, I became more comfortable with it."

He was also surprised by how formally people treated him. "This is Oregon, and we're an egalitarian, 'jeans and khakis' kind of culture, and you're being addressed as 'president,'" he said. "I was surprised by how easy it is to lose your approachability."

He tried to combat that, in part, by encouraging people to address him by his first name. "I get called Joe by a lot of people walking down the hall, and I love that," he said.

He's still blown away by those people walking down OHSU hallways. "I was talking to a faculty member this morning, and as I was talking to them, I was in awe of everything they had accomplished. And that's just one of literally thousands."

That's where he finds the most pride at the end of his tenure. Not in buildings and numbers, but in the people who work at OHSU, and how they work together. "I'm most proud of the culture," he said. "I really am. This is a place where people do value each other and where they will collaborate and share their ideas. At the end of the day, that's what I'm most proud of."