Meet Two Academic Deans Who Started Out as RTs

Academic Deans
David Shelledy is dean of the School of Health Professions at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, TX.

Most people who seek out a career in respiratory care education think of program director as the top job for an RT. Not so. On a number of campuses, respiratory therapists are now serving as deans as well.

AARC members David Shelledy, PhD, RRT, FAARC, and James Cairo, PhD, RRT, FAARC, explain how they ended up filling that role at their universities.

When, where, and why did you become a respiratory therapist?

Dr. Shelledy: I started in respiratory care as part of an on-the-job training program offered at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, FL, back in the early 1970s. I became fascinated with respiratory physiology, critical care, and mechanical ventilation.

At that time, I was going to school as a premed major, and respiratory care looked like a great option to complete my B.S. degree. I then transferred to Florida Tech in Orlando — now the University of Central Florida — and completed the B.S. in respiratory care. At that time, there were only about three respiratory care B.S. degree programs in the country.

Dr. Cairo: I worked as a respiratory therapist while I was enrolled in my last year of college at the University of Southwestern Louisiana — now University of Louisiana at Lafayette — and continued to work in the field when I went on to work on my master’s degree in biochemistry at Tulane University. While enrolled at Tulane, I was able to work at Charity Hospital-New Orleans and also Children’s Hospital of New Orleans.

Academic Deans
TJames Cairo is dean of the School of Allied Health Professions at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, LA.

After completing my master’s degree, I worked as a full-time biochemist and part-time respiratory therapist before deciding to enroll in the University of Chicago accelerated program for respiratory therapy to obtain formal training as a respiratory therapist so that I could obtain the RRT credential.

Working as a respiratory therapist allowed me to not only help support myself during graduate school but it also provided opportunities to apply the knowledge that I obtained in the classroom and laboratory in a clinical setting.

What are some of the career building steps you took to work your way up the ladder in the educational institutions you have worked for over the years and why do you think they were important to your advancement?

Dr. Shelledy: Having graduated from one of the few B.S. degree respiratory care programs in the country at that time, and having had several years of clinical experience, I landed a job as a supervisor at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. The University of South Florida had recently started its medical school, and the VA Medical Center was the home of the school’s division of pulmonary and critical care medicine.

I then went on to become the chair of the respiratory care program at St. Pete College and then on to serve as director of clinical education and interim chair in the department of cardiopulmonary sciences at Georgia State University. Next up was service as founding chair of the department of respiratory care at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health), a position I held for about 10 years.

Along the way, I continued to serve the profession, starting as a Florida Society for Respiratory Care (FSRC) chapter director, and later becoming FSRC president and delegate. My professional service continued with the Georgia Society for Respiratory Care and eventually culminated with service on the AARC Board of Directors and election as AARC president. In my spare time I completed my master’s degree and PhD.

Department chairs who aspire to a deanship often first serve as an associate dean. Such an opportunity came up at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which is the academic medical center for the State of Arkansas. I then went on to become dean of the College of Health Sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. These two positions allowed me to work closely with faculty, clinicians, program directors, and chairs in over 20 different allied health professions.

Dr. Cairo: After completing the University of Chicago respiratory therapy program and obtaining my RRT credential, I worked for several years in adult and pediatric critical care and pulmonary diagnostic testing, and subsequently was offered an opportunity to join the faculty of the respiratory therapy program at LSU Medical Center in New Orleans. While serving as a faculty member, I had an opportunity to enroll in the PhD program in physiology at LSU Medical Center.

Obtaining my PhD in physiology was an important milestone in my education because it allowed me to teach and collaborate on research projects with colleagues from schools across the medical center. It also led to an opportunity to serve as the department head of cardiopulmonary science at LSU Health Sciences Center.

I learned much about management and strategic planning during my tenure as a department head. I worked with a group of outstanding faculty and we were able to expand the mission of the department, which ultimately increased our visibility within the university and enhanced our outreach to the community.

On a personal level, my opportunities to enhance my research and scholarly activities increased and I was able to become more involved in participating in national organizations associated with the respiratory therapy profession. These latter activities allowed me to work with colleagues from various institutions around the country and to become actively engaged in discussions on subjects that impacted our profession.

What led to your interest in acquiring the dean’s position at the school where you are now and what does that job entail?

Dr. Shelledy: As dean at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, I had the opportunity to start one of the first entry to practice — first professional — master of science degree programs in respiratory care.

This program has been extremely successful and is now thoroughly integrated into the medical center’s clinical operations.

While I loved Rush, and am grateful for the extraordinary opportunities Rush provided, the opportunity to return to UT Health as the dean of the School of Health Professions was attractive. It also provided the opportunity to sponsor the addition of a new first professional M.S. respiratory care degree program, as well as start several other new programs within the school.

As dean, I am responsible for the administrative oversight of five departments and 14 different academic programs, as well as ensuring our 650 students receive the education, academic, and student services they need. Along with the deans of the schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, and biomedical sciences, I serve as a member of the Deans’ Council, President’s Cabinet, and Executive Committee, which all provide leadership for the university. I have been asked to develop several new programs, and along with our M.S. in respiratory care, we have begun new M.S. degree programs in speech-language pathology and medical laboratory sciences and will be beginning a new occupational therapy doctoral program next May. We also have plans for a new PhD program in health sciences, and hope to receive approval for that program next year.

Dr. Cairo: There were several events that probably influenced my increased interest in becoming a dean. I was asked to serve as the department head of cardiopulmonary science at LSU Medical Center in New Orleans after I completed my PhD.

Interestingly, I served in that position for 14 years and thoroughly enjoyed working with faculty and students.

During those years serving as a department head, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with outstanding chancellors, deans, and department heads. They offered me opportunities for personal and professional growth, which I also believe had a considerable influence on my gradual interest in serving as a dean.

Serving as the dean of a School of Allied Health Professions with nine academic programs and a Human Development Center involves a number of responsibilities that fall within the categories of administration, academic, and financial affairs. Examples of these responsibilities include ensuring the integrity of our academic and clinical service programs, recruitment and retention of qualified faculty and staff, overseeing fiduciary activities for all departments, clinics, and the Human Development Center, and human resource management, as well as serving on university, state, regional, and national committees.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that many of the responsibilities associated with being a dean are “not in the job description.” I became acutely aware of my extended responsibilities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As you are probably aware, we had to relocate the entire LSU Health Sciences Center to Baton Rouge for nine months. Although this was one of the most challenging experiences of my career, working with the administration of health sciences and with the faculty, students, and staff of the School of Allied Health Professions to sustain and rebuild our academic and clinical programs was probably the most rewarding experience of my professional career and being a dean.

How is your background as a respiratory therapist helping you in your role as dean?

Dr. Shelledy: Respiratory care is an amazing profession. As a respiratory therapist at an academic health center, you have the opportunity to teach, participate in research and scholarship, provide patient care, and be active in service to the community and your profession.

There was an old TV commercial in which several kids were sitting around considering whether or not to try a new breakfast cereal. One of the kids was willing to try anything, and the other kids suggested to let “Mikey try it.” Well, I believe that respiratory care is the “Mikey” of the allied health world, and respiratory therapists are often willing to step up to the plate to try new technology, new ways of doing things, and ultimately improve patient care.

Dr. Cairo: As I’ve mentioned, my role as a respiratory therapist has given me numerous opportunities for professional growth. Most importantly, it has provided me an “inside view” of the role of health care professionals in caring for patients and their families. My experiences as a respiratory educator have given me a greater understanding of the importance of ensuring that the foundational years in the classroom and the clinic must be comprehensive for all health care educational professions.

Interestingly, the current trend in health care education promoting interprofessional education has been an integral part of respiratory therapy education and the allied health professions since their inception. Establishing a collegial environment is essential for effective patient care. Additionally, RT education accreditation practices have been at the forefront of outcome-oriented accreditation, which is now the standard for regional and specialty health care education practice standards.

How has your AARC membership facilitated your rise up the educational ranks over the years and why do you feel it is important to maintain your membership?

Dr. Shelledy: I’ve always been a big fan of the AARC, and can’t imagine not continuing my membership. Most universities highly value service, and want their faculty to serve in leadership roles in their profession, and the AARC provides many opportunities to do just that. In addition, there are many role models who have served or are currently serving in leadership roles within AARC. These folks are more than happy to serve as mentors for those who want to get and stay involved, as well as advance their career. In addition, AARC provides outstanding educational opportunities for continuing practice that helps me keep current in terms of what’s going on clinically, as well as what’s happening across the health care landscape.

Dr. Cairo: Maintaining my AARC membership is an integral part of maintaining my license to practice as a respiratory therapist. The AARC provides valuable information and updates that are important for all practicing respiratory therapists. The AARC’s support of respiratory care state societies, the annual respiratory care Congress, Respiratory Care, AARC Times, and online specialty section digests consistently provide current and historical information about our profession.

Most importantly, the AARC provides a collective voice for our profession. This is particularly important at this time because of debate over potential changes in health care financing, licensure, and education, which could affect patient care and professional practice.

What advice do you have for other respiratory care educators who see themselves climbing the ladder to the dean’s position one day?

Dr. Shelledy: University teaching provides a fulfilling career with wonderful upward mobility. And while teaching provides many satisfactions, academic medical centers tend to focus on all four mission components: education, research, service, and patient care. Go on and get that next degree, and don’t shrink from obtaining your PhD. There are number of blended and online PhD programs around the country now, including a PhD in health sciences which I helped start at Rush University Medical Center to prepare future faculty, researchers, and leaders in allied health.

For faculty, a great program leadership starting point is director of clinical education. Then move on to program director and department chair. Success in these roles may lead to an associate dean position and eventually a deanship in health sciences. Get active in your state society and with the AARC. Be willing to serve on committees, chair committees, and when you get more experience, volunteer to be placed on the ballot for elected positions and offices.

Lastly, don’t neglect research and scholarship. Research is fun, rewarding, and meaningful. You don’t need a big lab or a lot of money to answer some simple questions.

The AARC Open Forum provides a wonderful opportunity to present your research, get suggestions from the pros in terms of how to improve what you’re doing, and provide guidance in terms of what needs to be done next. Become a triple threat: an outstanding classroom and clinical teacher, a contributor to research and scholarship, and a participant and leader in your profession.

Dr. Cairo: The best advice that I believe I can offer is simply to focus on the job at hand. Personally, being a dean was not my goal when I began my professional career. I was focused on being a knowledgeable and productive clinician, educator, and researcher. I would suggest that it’s less about climbing a ladder and more about establishing a firm foundation that can you can build upon.

Consistently contributing to the growth of your profession and your university, as well as establishing a record of meaningful personal and professional accomplishments will typically lead to opportunities for professional growth. Keep in mind that becoming a dean requires servant leadership. It is not about gaining control, it’s about providing effective leadership that serves and guides the students and faculty who will care for the patients we ultimately serve.

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