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Dr. Mary Nettleman

Dr. Mary Nettleman served as medical school dean and vice president of USD’s Division of Health Affairs from April 2, 2012, until her retirement on Aug. 31, 2020.

She challenged us by proclaiming that our medical school was among the nation’s finest. She encouraged us to embrace leadership roles within the national medical community. She declared that our medical students could compete with medical students from any other university. She championed formalizing an innovative, new concept – kindness in medical education and practice – that became an emphasis in our curriculum and throughout the culture of our institution.

It’s impossible to compile a comprehensive list of Dr. Mary Nettleman’s contributions to the University of South Dakota and its school of medicine. Some of those contributions can be quantified, but many of them cannot. How can the impact of her optimism be cataloged? How can we calculate the influence on the institution stemming from her willingness to pursue ambitious, collaborative and progressive initiatives and programs?

Dr. Nettleman came to the University of South Dakota as a talented, accomplished physician, researcher and leader in academic medicine. But she was initially viewed as an outsider, arriving here from the medical school at Michigan State University, and many were anxious about what her plans might be for USD’s medical school.

Dr. Nettleman speaking at an event
For eight years, Dr. Nettleman led the medical school.

“Dr. Nettleman was recruited for a number of reasons, but a critical consideration was her background in research, because the university wanted to expand its medical research,” explained Dr. Rod Parry, dean of the medical school from 2004 to 2012, and Nettleman’s predecessor. “We soon found out that she was interested in far more than research, and that she had a much broader vision and a desire to elevate the school’s stature.”

When Nettleman arrived, the school was implementing a unique, new curriculum – converting four years into three pillars with more hands-on experience, including a longitudinal system of clerkships – and some worried the new dean would not support all the planning and work that had gone into that significant undertaking. But Nettleman carefully took stock, rather than shaking things up.

“When I came to the medical school it was in terrific shape,” she recalled. “It was community and service-oriented and it was student-centered. There was a great team leading it. They had a new curriculum, and it was clear the school was able to pursue change if change benefitted the institution and the students.”

Not only did the new curriculum survive the new dean, there was, under her leadership, a continued and focused investment of money and knowledge to make the curriculum increasingly relevant to the successes of the students, their futures as practicing physicians and the effectiveness and thoughtfulness of their service to communities and institutions.

As she started her duties, Nettleman was pleased to see first-hand that the school she would oversee placed substantial value on producing practicing physicians. This corresponded with what she’d earlier heard about the school, and it matched her own priorities regarding the purposes of medical education.

Nettleman’s father had been a doctor in Coldwater, Michigan, and as a young woman growing up and observing him, she admired the earnest concern he extended to his patients. “He was a small-town, family doc,” she explained, “and he had a personal relationship with his patients, including helping them understand health and medicine.” Nettleman’s mother was a college mathematics teacher who turned to substitute teaching while her children were growing up, and it was from both her parents that she came to respect the importance of teaching, mentoring and education. Those lessons and that inspiration helped define her career and who she would become.

Dr. Nettleman as a child
Dr. Nettleman referred to her childhood as small-town idyllic.

After high school, she earned an undergraduate degree from Ohio University. “I originally wanted to pursue a Ph.D.,” Nettleman recalled. “But I decided medical school was more appealing to me. My dad was an inspiration in that choice.” So, the next stop for Nettleman was Vanderbilt University’s school of medicine. She later completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in infectious diseases at Indiana University, and then started teaching at the University of Iowa’s school of medicine, rising from instructor to associate professor between 1987 and 1996. New and greater opportunities took her to Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school, and there she taught and chaired the Division of Internal Medicine until returning to Michigan in 2003 to become Chair of the Department of Medicine at Michigan State University. Nine years later she was appointed vice president, overseeing the Division of Health Affairs here at USD, including serving as dean of the university’s medical school.

“I knew very little about South Dakota when I took the job,” Nettleman admitted. She credited former USD President James W. Abbott with familiarizing her with the state’s culture, history and leadership that would enable her to better lead the university’s medical school and its large and growing School of Health Sciences. “President Abbott introduced me to many people and explained many aspects of the state to me. That was extremely helpful.”

Dr. Nettleman's first White Coat Ceremony at USD's medical school in 2012
2012 marked Dr. Nettleman’s first White Coat ceremony at USD’s medical school.

Nettleman discovered she liked South Dakota and South Dakotans. She would later say that she learned there was an inherent humility and altruism in the people she met throughout the state, and especially in the medical community, where she saw much modesty despite so much talent, skill and success. But something else struck her. “Many people I met,” she said, “were very kind. I really do think kindness is a South Dakota trait.”

Her inherited team at the medical school proved to be supportive and helpful. “I was fortunate to have so many terrific people providing guidance,” said Nettleman. Proving to be especially helpful was Carmen Hammond, Nettleman’s executive assistant who had already served in that capacity for 18 years, including the same position for two of Nettleman’s immediate predecessors. “I discovered that Carmen is the heartbeat of the school, and she was able to help me understand the people who worked at the school.” That was significant, Nettleman explained, because in her style of leadership, understanding and respecting people leads to positive, constructive relationships and accomplishments that can improve the school and the educational opportunities provided to students.

Dr. Tim Ridgway was serving as dean of faculty affairs and Sioux Falls campus dean at the medical school when Nettleman arrived. “I discovered that not only is her intelligence off the charts,” Ridgway said, “but she was able to navigate tricky issues, solve problems and advance opportunities because she respected people, knew how to work with people, and she wanted to get the best out of them. She welcomed and solicited advice and guidance.” Ridgway was selected in 2020 to succeed Nettleman as dean of the medical school.

Mark Beard, Tim Ridgway and Dr. Nettleman celebrating successes at a medical school gathering
Celebrating successes at a medical school gathering, alongside Drs. Mark Beard and Tim Ridgway.

A unique aspect of the medical school was that it was the first medical school where Nettleman had worked that did not have a clinical practice. “It was interesting to see how the system worked,” Nettleman said. “We don’t generate clinical revenue, but we receive an enormous amount of outstanding teaching from our clinical faculty scattered across the state. Practicing physicians can be outstanding teachers; they’re natural teachers. Physicians with a good bedside manner make outstanding educators. The practicing physicians who practically donate their time to teach our students make this institution possible. They are why we continue to provide outstanding training to our students.”

Another unique medical school trait is its relationship to the state it serves. “This medical school is embedded in the state of South Dakota,” Nettleman observed. “It feels like it is a part of a larger, broader mission because we serve the entire state. The school doesn’t look inward. It always looks outward. And it looks both to the future and to its past at the same time.”

That relationship and the school’s objective to produce physicians who end up practicing in the state adds both an accountability and a connection to South Dakota. “We need a supportive state government as we pursue our mission,” Nettleman added. “Plus, we are attracting some of the state’s most capable young people, and there is a responsibility to do a good job educating them.”

Students weren’t the only ones whose opportunities and growth were addressed under Nettleman. She encouraged her leadership team to seek out positions in national academic and medical organizations. She felt that doing so not only enhanced personal growth, but the medical school and medical education in general also benefited. “There are many national regulators overseeing various aspects of medical schools, and many people who create guidelines and regulations that affect medical schools,” Nettleman explained. “I felt we needed a voice at those decision-making tables, and I was confident we could influence the national scene for medical education. We have lots of exceptional people at the school who can contribute to health care education on the national level. Many of the programs and planning that are part of our institution can be useful to other medical schools.”

That encouragement resulted in school of medicine officials taking positions on an array of national accreditation boards, national advisory committees and national governance bodies. Two members of Nettleman’s leadership team became medical school deans.

During Nettleman’s tenure, class sizes and scholarships were expanded, residency scores jumped to elite levels and diversity and wellness initiatives were established. A new position – associate dean for diversity – was created to encourage diversity and help the institution better understand diversity issues. The nationally recognized Frontier and Rural Medicine (FARM) program and other endeavors to encourage young physicians to practice in underserved and rural areas were launched during her tenure. A new deanship emphasizing rural medical practice – dean of rural medicine – was established. Bob Sutton, the president and CEO of Avera Health, recalled Nettleman’s innovative programs and her leadership on matters related to rural health care in South Dakota. “Dr. Nettleman’s commitment to the delivery of medicine in rural communities will be a lasting legacy of her service as dean,” said Sutton.

Nettleman is especially proud of meaningful initiatives aiding students who attend medical school while married or a parent. “We want our students and perspective students to understand that they can attend medical school and have a family,” she said. “We can accommodate that, and we do. We have maternity and paternity programs, and they can be tailored to a student’s needs. We have developed a pathway for family life in medical school.” According to Nettleman, few medical schools in the country contain a greater percentage of married students and students with children than the Sanford School of Medicine. “Up to half our students in any class are married when they enter medical school or get married while they are in medical school,” said Nettleman. Nationally, she added, “seven percent of medical students have children. At this school, that figure is 12 percent.”

Nettleman also paid close attention to publicity and public awareness regarding the school. Acknowledging achievement and informing others about achievement, suggested Nettleman, is vital for an organization. “There are benefits to letting people know what a wonderful school we have,” she said. “For starters, the taxpayers are paying us to provide doctors to the state. They have a right to know what’s happening here, and to understand what they’re getting for their investment.

In 2017, the medical school received the Foreman Award. This award – recognizing community service – is considered the most prestigious annual honor presented to one of the nation’s 150 medical schools. Dr. Nettleman and USD President James Abbott sharing news of the Foreman Award at halftime of a USD football game in the DakotaDome.
Dr. Nettleman and USD President James Abbott shared news of the Foreman Award at halftime of a USD football game in the DakotaDome in 2017.

“Not only must a good leader know when to say no, and how to stay calm in the face of challenges,” Nettleman added. “A good leader also knows how to say yes, and how to celebrate successes.”

In the final two years of her work as dean, Nettleman unveiled an unprecedented approach to medical education, one that recognizes the significance of kindness in practicing physicians. “We will work to elevate this value throughout the school and in our culture,” she said. “Our students are inherently kind, but the process of acquiring medical knowledge and performing clinical rotations has not been designed to develop and recognize kindness ... No other medical school explicitly champions kindness as an overarching value and expectation intended to transform how patients, students, staff and colleagues are treated. A culture of kindness can make us exceptional.”

"Humility is a strong value, but a stronger value is kindness." – Dr. Mary Nettleman

Nettleman consistently emphasized a team approach as the school not only performed its more routine functions, but also as it undertook new and innovative programs, such as the kindness initiative. “I believe there was better collaboration and better results when I didn’t micro-manage people,” said Nettleman. “I would rather empower them.”

Nettleman’s final months as dean were dominated by challenges related to COVID-19. Contingency planning for different scenarios commenced in February 2020, and the institution pulled its students from clinical rotations that spring. Because of thoughtful planning online learning opportunities were expertly expanded, and creative approaches to presenting a variety of different trainings were offered. “Times of crisis,” wrote Nettleman, “cause us to call upon inner reserves and require us to demonstrate our character.” Even under such demanding conditions, the school’s educational requirements were met. It was helpful Nettleman commanded great attention to detail and was an authority regarding infectious diseases. She credited her leadership team and faculty with guiding the institution through such difficult days, and praised students for their positive response to unexpected learning circumstances.

USD President Sheila Gestring applauded Nettleman’s accomplishments, citing several highlights. “Throughout her tenure as dean and vice president,” said Gestring, “Dr. Nettleman did more than change the school’s approach – she transformed it. She put an emphasis on diversity, she improved sensitivity for students with families and she increased opportunities for women in the school. She also recognized that access to professional health care was limited in rural communities, and she prioritized rural medicine at the school, creating programs and positions to address this problem for South Dakotans. The state has greatly benefitted from Dr. Nettleman’s legacy and her esteem of rural health care.”

Dr. Nettleman holding up an honor she received from USD as vice president and dean emeritus
To recognize her outstanding leadership and service, the University of South Dakota honored Dr. Nettleman as vice president and dean emeritus.

Nettleman’s impact on the national Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) – the organization providing oversight of the nation’s medical schools – was also substantial and resulted in the organization bestowing Distinguished Service Membership to her. “You have made truly extraordinary contributions to our organization,” said Dr. David Skorton, president and CEO of AAMC.

“Dr. Nettleman was a talented, passionate and visionary leader for the medical school,” offered Carmen Hammond, Nettleman’s executive assistant during her eight years as dean. “She embraced our school, our mission and our new curriculum, and continued the legacy of the deans before her by wholeheartedly promoting our school at the local, state and national level, leaving us in a great place when she retired. I’m grateful for her commitment to and compassion for our faculty, students, residents and staff. But most of all, I’m grateful for her friendship.”

As Nettleman reviews her time and experiences as dean, she returns to a statement she enjoys repeating. “I firmly believe that this is the best medical school in the nation. I really do. We have the credentials to prove that. We have outstanding people here, and our students are the best and the brightest in South Dakota.”