In the spring of 2008 as Richard L. Schilsky, MD, was about to begin his one-year term as President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology he told OT that in the next two years he would have the luxury of deciding whether to seek new professional challenges since at that time he would be stepping down after 15 years as Chair of the Cancer and Leukemia Group B (CALGB) and finishing his stint as ASCO's Immediate-Past President (6/25/08 issue).
Well that luxury loomed large as a reality this fall when Schilsky was officially offered the opportunity to join ASCO in the newly created leadership position of Chief Medical Officer (CMO), a job seemingly tailored to his particular expertise and experience in oncology and as a longtime active ASCO volunteer.
ASCO CEO Allen S. Lichter, MD, said that the Society had created the position and that the timing had worked out: “There was tremendous interest in the position, which was extremely flattering to us, and clearly Rich had the breath of experience both outside and within the organization.”
Current ASCO President Sandra M. Swain, MD, Medical Director of the Washington Cancer Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, who chaired the five-person search committee, said that more than 30 well-qualified candidates applied for the post during the six-month search process.
“The Board has talked a lot about being bolder with policy issues, and with that and other ambitious projects including our quality initiative [QOPI—Quality Oncology Practice Initiative] and CancerLinQ [Learning Intelligence Network for Quality] and the revamping of what is now the Conquer Cancer Foundation, it seemed time to bring in a second physician who is a senior member of the oncology community to work with Allen.”
She noted that although volunteers spend considerable time on ASCO business, the CMO position allows someone with the breadth of experience and knowledge of the Society and respect of its members to be aboard full time.
Schilsky, who will report directly to Lichter and have no direct reports of his own, will work across the association and focus on four broad areas: quality programs, public policy, communications, and fundraising.
Lichter explained the evolution of ASCO's professional staff, which now numbers more than 280: In the early 1990s the Board decided it was time for the Society to move to self-management and to hire its first CEO, with the specification that the post be held by a physician. Since then, there has been a single physician in that position, working with hundreds of volunteers and staff members. But eventually, with increases in the size and complexity of the organization it became apparent that even with the most dedicated group of physician volunteers helping, it was not possible for a single staff physician to meet the demands.
“What Rich and I will do is to try to allow ourselves to take advantage of more things that we should be doing right now rather than have to decline [opportunities] and send regrets that we couldn't participate,” Lichter said.
Working closely together, Lichter, a radiation oncologist, and Schilsky, a medical oncologist, will provide ASCO with a two-man team with many personal and professional similarities. Both men are former ASCO presidents, and although both had celebrated careers in oncology they also had academic portfolios that went beyond cancer.
Lichter was Dean of the University of Michigan Medical School when he was recruited as ASCO CEO in 2006, and Schilsky has held numerous leadership positions at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, including Associate Dean for Clinical Research and head of the cancer center. He is currently Chief of Hematology/Oncology in UC's Department of Medicine and Deputy Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
In anticipation of his then-upcoming commitment to ASCO as President-elect, President, and Immediate-past President (2007-2010), Schilsky resigned as Associate Dean, the position created for him in 1999 when he stepped down as Cancer Center Director after eight years.
I spoke with Schilsky in November shortly after ASCO announced his hiring, and reminded him of his comments in 2008 about seeking new challenges after 2010. “I wanted to do something [else] that would make some impact and do something meaningful with the remainder of my career,” he said.
He said he knew what he didn't want to do—for example, directing another cancer center, venturing outside the cancer arena, being a dean or medical department head, or working in industry. “So I was biding my time, and I knew that ASCO was contemplating a position like this for several years, and when it was in gestation I was contacted by the search firm this past May.”
Several interviews were held, and in September he learned he had been selected, right before leaving for a planned two-week trip to Australia. “The job felt good from the moment it was offered to me, and I feel that it will be a really good fit, especially with my knowledge and experience with the organization and experience in oncology.”
He said he has known Lichter for some 30 years from their days at NCI when Schilsky was a medical oncology fellow and Lichter was a staff radiation oncologist.
In addition to a long tenure at the University of Chicago, originally as a medical student starting in 1971, and then as a faculty member since 1984, and his leadership of CALGB, Schilsky, who specializes in new drug development and the treatment of gastrointestinal cancers, has served as a member and Chair of NCI's Board of Scientific Advisors, as a member of the NCI Clinical and Translational Research Committee, as a member and Chair of the FDA's Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee, and as an Associate Editor of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and Senior Associate Editor of Molecular Oncology.
His credentials as an ASCO volunteer will also expedite his learning curve when he starts work on February 28, the beginning of the Board of Directors 2013 spring retreat. In addition to his presidency, Schilsky has served as Chair of ASCO's Cancer Research, Communications, and Government Relations committees, and is currently a member of the society's Conquer Cancer Foundation Board, a position he will have to resign from when he joins the staff.
He admitted that despite his background in policy, communications, and fundraising, he has had the least direct experience in the quality initiatives area and will have to get up to speed in that area.
“I'm not coming into ASCO with an agenda,” he said. “I am more personally engaged, stimulated, and interested in the range of activities [I'll be involved in], and hope to help ASCO achieve its primary goals. There's plenty of work to be done and it's very appealing that there isn't a fixed portfolio and I can get involved in what is most interesting or where I'm most needed.”
He said that after retiring from the University of Chicago at the end of this year and taking some time off he will move to the Washington area while maintaining an office in his suburban-Chicago home and that he has no current plans to seek a clinical appointment at a local cancer or medical center.