After more than a decade at the helm, Cynda Ann Johnson, founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, has announced her plans to retire. She will stay in her position this year while a search for her replacement is underway.
“Being founding dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and creating a school from scratch has been an amazing experience,” said Johnson. “From the unique, patient-centered curriculum that we created, to the high-caliber students and graduates and faculty who deeply care about teaching and mentoring, leading this school has exceeded my expectations in every way.”
In January 2007, Carilion Clinic, Virginia Tech, and the governor of Virginia announced plans for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute. In November of that year, Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech announced that Johnson would be the school’s founding dean.
Johnson arrived in Roanoke, Virginia, in January 2008 to oversee the creation of a new allopathic medical school including accreditation, curriculum, admissions, policies, faculty appointments, and staffing. In addition, Johnson helped design the building to foster the school’s problem-based curriculum as well as spaces dedicated for learning with standardized patients, allowing students early and frequent exposure to patient training.
Fewer than two years after her arrival, the school welcomed its first class on August 2, 2010, and received full accreditation without citations by the Liaison Committee for Medical Education after the charter class graduated in May 2014.
During her tenure, four classes of students have graduated; each class has exceeded the national mean score on Step 1 and Step 2 licensing exams and has earned a 100 percent match rate to residency programs.
“Not too many people these days can say they built a medical school from the ground up, particularly one with such a stellar reputation,” offered Nancy Howell Agee, president and CEO of Carilion Clinic, who was part of the hiring committee that selected Johnson. “We knew we needed someone special for the job, and Cynda surpassed expectations — not only ours, but the community’s — at every step of the way.”
Johnson built the school under a still-unique public-private partnership between Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic. “That presented its own set of challenges and opportunities, but her hard work has paid off in numerous ways,” said Agee. “The extraordinary success that the school has seen under Cynda’s leadership isn’t a surprise to anyone who knows her. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to work with such a leader.”
“Thanks to Cynda’s tireless work, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine is one of the top research-intensive medical schools in the country,” said Timothy Sands, president of Virginia Tech. “Her leadership over the past decade will support the success of its students, faculty, and staff for decades to come, and has established the school as a driving force in the development of the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus.”
The school received more than 1,600 applications for its charter class; in each of the last two years, it received more than 4,000 applications for just 42 spots.
When Johnson was hired as dean, the intent was for the school to have a five-year curriculum to allow a year for dedicated research. Johnson advocated that students could incorporate an intensive focus on research in a four-year curriculum to reduce the time and cost to earn a degree. As evidence of the value of this research-intensive program, from 2014 to 2017 – which encompasses four graduating classes of 160 students – VTCSOM students authored 58 publications. During the same time span, more than 250 VTCSOM students gave research presentations at regional, national, and international conferences.
Johnson is also credited with establishing the first Department of Interprofessionalism within U.S. medical schools. As part of the core curriculum, students take classes and learn with other health professional students – in such disciplines as nursing, physician assistant, occupational therapy, and EMT/paramedic, among others – in all four years of the curriculum. The goal is for students to learn how to work best as a health care team to improve patient outcomes.
“One of the amazing things about starting a new school was we could look at the trends and see what the next generation of physicians will need to be successful, such as training in interprofessionalism and research to improve patient outcomes, and build the curriculum to meet those needs. That is harder to do in well-established schools,” said Johnson. “We also built the curriculum to remain flexible so we can continually adapt and ensure we can meet our mission to develop the next generation physician thought leaders.”
For example, Johnson led efforts to partner with Delta Dental of Virginia to create a comprehensive oral health curriculum at the school, one of the first among U.S. medical schools. The Delta Dental of Virginia Foundation has given several gifts, including a $1 million endowment, to support the development and execution of the curriculum.
Under Johnson’s tenure, VTCSOM has been an independently accredited private school; on July 1 of this year, it will be integrated into Virginia Tech as the university’s ninth college with Carilion Clinic as a partner providing faculty and the clinical experience for students.
“The last 10 years have been incredible, and I plan to keep ties with the school and community,” Johnson said. “My husband and I plan to stay in Roanoke, which has become our home. I look forward to tracking the progress of the school’s students, alumni, and faculty. Another decade from now, I am confident the school and the Health Sciences and Technology Campus will continue to grow and thrive.”
With a passion to ensure the medical school did not become an ivory tower in the community, Johnson encouraged opportunities for the community to be welcome in the school and for students, faculty, and staff to serve the community as well. Under her direction, the school established recurring events to invite the community into the school, including art shows hosted three times a year, mini medical schools, and Within Reach, which encourages K-12 students to pursue health-related education and professions.
With Johnson’s support and encouragement, the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will host the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair in Roanoke for the first time on April 13-14 this year as a way to engage students from across the commonwealth.
Before coming to Roanoke, Johnson had more than three decades of clinical, research, teaching, and leadership experience. She served at East Carolina University, first as dean of the Brody School of Medicine beginning in 2003 and then as senior associate vice-chancellor for clinical and translational research in the Division of Research and Graduate Studies in 2006.
Prior to East Carolina, Johnson was chair of Family Medicine and director of the Family Care Center at the University of Iowa.
Johnson’s first academic appointment was at the University of Kansas as a professor in the departments of Family Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology. While there, she served as residency director and interim chair of the Department of Family Medicine.
In addition to her academic and clinical roles, Johnson has held many leadership roles, such as past president of the American Board of Family Practice (now Family Medicine) and the American Board of Medical Specialties. Johnson serves on professional boards, including the AAMC Group on Student Affairs Steering Committee; the AMA Section on Medical Schools Governing Council; the Commonwealth Health Research Board, which was an appointment by the Joint Rules Committee of the Virginia General Assembly; and the boards of directors for Carilion Medical Center, Friendship Retirement Community, Roanoke Valley Sister Cities, Roanoke Regional Chamber, Hollins University President’s Advisory Board, and the University of Kansas School of Medicine Deans Advisory Board.
Johnson earned her bachelor’s degree with honors from Stanford and was Phi Beta Kappa. She received her medical degree from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She completed her family medicine residency at the University of Kansas and teaching fellowship in family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She earned an MBA from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
Johnson is married to Bruce Johnson, a general internist who retired as founding associate dean for faculty affairs at VTCSOM in July. He continues to see patients and precept residents at Carilion Clinic and has remained an active faculty member at VTCSOM. They have two grown sons and one grandson.